President Bush had completely botched the politics of his faith-based initiative -- until now. The new drug treatment program briefly highlighted in His State of the Union address masters the politics and substance. In his speech, Bush didn't explain what makes it so different from previous faith-based efforts. The proposal would provide $200 million to provide "vouchers" that addicts could use at treatment programs of their choice, including religiously-oriented programs. In so doing, Bush can make opponents look anti-religion instead of pro-constitution.

But first a brief history of how Bush has mishandled his faith based initiative so far. His initial proposals managed to draw attacks from both left and right. Conservatives came to fear that either money would go to religions they didn't like -- such as Scientology or Islam. ( Little-known fact: The southern Baptist convention -- the most pro-Bush religious group out there -- actually recommended that their members not accept the faith-based initiative money. They fear that churches would have to compromise their mission to abide by government regulations.) Liberals, meanwhile, argued that it violated the separation of church and state. His legislative proposals died in Congress.

Bush then went around congress and gave out grants through existing programs--including one to a program run by the controversial Pat Robertson.

Then the head of his program, John DiIulio wrote a memo to a magazine reporter saying that his boss, president Bush, had ignored opportunities to have a bipartisan bill pass in order to score points with conservatives. He mocked the White House "Mayberry Machiavellis'' who swagger and strut on politics while showing little public policy understanding. DiIIulio, the person in charge of one of the most important elements "compassionate conservatism" in the Bush administration for the first year, said the Bush's record on this was "virtually empty."

Just last week, the administration again showed political hamhandedness by announcing it would give money to churches to renovate their buildings --but only the secular parts of the buildings that were used for delivering social services. But you don't have to be a math whiz to see that if a church can get the government to pay for renovating the basement "counseling area," they can shift money from their regular building fund to renovate the sanctuary.

But Bush's approach to drug treatment is different. Because It would give people vouchers they could use to enroll in drug treatment programs -- including those that are overtly religious -- there is less of a constitutional violation than earlier proposals. Government money would be going to the person rather than directly to the institution. It's like the federal student aid grant program. Right now Pell grants go to students who then take them to the colleges of their choice -- including seminaries and religious schools with explicitly religious missions. Constitutionally, that's fine.

There is still a major argument against this approach but it's of a wholly different sort. The argument is that these programs make use of non-medical treatment strategies. The National Mental Health Association has criticized these programs for allowing "persons without adequate training" to give treatment.

Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State says Bush is subsidizing unproven programs that "pray away" addiction.

The most popular and some say most effective anti-addiction program is called Teen Challenge. The curriculum includes books with subtitles like "How to become a Christian" and "How to develop a personal relationship with Jesus." But some studies have also shown that the approach has a higher success rate than most secular programs. If that's true, what difference does it make if religion is part of the reason?

Indeed, if critics end up arguing that religiously oriented programs are inherently more dubious they'll have to contend with the fact that Alcoholics Anonymous -- arguably the most trusted anti- addiction organization in America -- requires a surrendering to a " Higher Power." To many people, the idea of "praying away" an addiction is ludicrous, but to even more people the evidence is strong that the power of prayer really does work.

If they object, boxed-in critics will seem anti-religion.

There are still plenty of points to criticize . It is a little bit hard to take compassionate conservatism seriously as a priority when Bush is willing to put hundreds of billions to ward eliminating the tax on stock dividends but less than 1% of that amount into the faith based initiative. And the program has to be set up so the addicts feel like they have a genuine choice between a religious program and a secular alternative.

But Bush has finally hit upon an approach that makes sense politically and substantively.

January 29, 2003

BUSH'S GODLY RHETORIC: President Bush often overdoes his use of religious rhetoric.
In some speeches, Bush mentions God so many times, he appears to be using Him for political purposes. (Shocking!)

But Bush's use of religious symbolism and rhetoric in the State of the Union Address was quite effective. Possibly the best invocation of a higher power Bush has ever used was his statement: "The liberty we prize is not America's gift to the world; it is God's gift to humanity."