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."

In all, the speech included 16 religious phrases (not including "evil"), but it didn't seem over the top. In part that's because he didn't enlist God for inappropriate tasks, like selling the repeal of the tax on stock dividends or peddling the hydrogen car. Indeed, until the last paragraph he mentioned God only twice.

Instead he used language that created a spiritual context but in a gentler way. He spoke of the "miracle of recovery" from addiction and the "wonder-working power" of treatment programs that can help people "one soul at a time." Helping prevent AIDS deaths in Africa, he said, is "our calling, as a blessed country."

This approach conveyed a sense that a) we have a moral obligation to take these steps and b) we should feel optimistic about our chances of success because we're going to be getting some powerful assistance.

January 7, 2003

MODEST PRO-LIFE AGENDA: Pro-life groups plan to push what's being described as an aggressive agenda with the new Republican Congress. For the first time since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade in 1973 the GOP controls the White House, Senate and House.

What's amazing to me is how un-aggressive this agenda is. The issues they're pushing are all at the margins of the abortion debate: a ban on partial-birth abortions, tougher penalties for helping a minor evade parental notification rules, and a bill making it a crime to harm a fetus in an attack on a pregnant woman.

All three measures, which would affect a miniscule fraction of pregnancies, are largely symbolic. They are the sort of measures the pro-life movement pushed during Democrat-controlled Congresses. It's interesting that even now they're focusing on symbolism, and gives credence to the argument, forwarded by a pro-life writer on Beliefnet recently, that the battle over Roe v. Wade is "over.")

No doubt, the White House is telling pro-lifers to steer clear of controversial measures, like a constitutional amendment banning abortion. President Bush has always argued that pro-lifers should focus on changing minds before trying to do what he says he really wants to do, and ban abortion. This pragmatism appealed to anti-abortion advocates during the Clinton years because it enabled them to make steady progress during a hostile era.

But would Bush push for a constitutional amendment if he thought it had a chance? Doubtful. Such a fight would force him into making pro-life a high priority, and that would alienate many independent suburban voters.

MANAGEMENT GURU FOR THE MEGA-CHURCHES: Did you know that the legendary business consultant Peter Drucker has been instrumental in helping mega-churches?

In a new CNBC documentary, Drucker says he became interested in the religious and non-profit worlds after seeing the business world he had loved and studied for so many years become steadily more corrupt. Beliefnet Contributing Editor T George Harris, who has known Drucker for years, says Drucker took it personally when managers began to fake the books to "make themselves look good for the next three months." They violated the systematic management concepts Peter had coached into two generations of top managers. The betrayal drove Drucker to concentrate on volunteer non-profits whose product "is a better person." Mega-churches launch fleets of new volunteer organizations as "ministries."

Drucker told CNBC that mega-churches provided a new community for "young, educated successful professionals who, in nine cases out of ten, were rootless, came out of the small town or farm or the working class and are now in the big city, and very successful in their work." He has become a regular advisor to some of the mega-church networks, like Bill Hybel's Willow Creek.

December 30, 2002

INSPIRING YEMEN MISSIONARIES: If the early reports are true, the three missionaries who were murdered in Yemen should certainly count as finalists in our Most Inspiring People list. Consider this: Dr. Martha Myers of Mobile, Alabama was kidnapped for several days by Muslim terrorists four years ago -- and still remained in Yemen to provide free medical care to the desperate poor of the area. How many of us would have done that?

The three also stand in contrast to some other missionaries in that they, it appears, emphasized living the message of Jesus Christ more than preaching it. Missionary work that focuses on serving, rather than pure proselytizing, is far more likely to make a better world. Please add your prayer to this memorial for the three slain missionaries.

December 24, 2002

JOE LIEBERMAN'S CHRISTMAS TREE: Joe Lieberman tells The New York Times that even though he is an observant Jew, he would have a Christmas tree in the White House were he elected president. "I think, because the White House is a national home, it certainly would," he said. "It's a symbol."

This may make him more palatable to some Christians, but will it rile Jews? Many a family fight has broken out in Jewish homes over this question, particularly since half of Jewish marriages are now interfaith. As Beliefnet member Baruch18 wrote, "A Christmas Tree is a Christian symbol -- that's why it's called a 'Christ'mas Tree. It is not a Jewish symbol and has NO place in a Jewish home." Israel's Chief Rabbi recently declared that Jews celebrating Christmas there threatened the Jewish state.

The Jewish reaction may depend on where in the White House the tree resides. "He didn't say he would have a Christmas tree in the residence," Nathan Diament, the director of the Orthodox Union's Institute for Public Affairs, told our Rebecca Phillips. "The White House is a public building. There's a Christmas tree in all kinds of public spaces. President Bush, who is a Methodist, had a Hanukkah menorah lit in the White House."

For Christians, a step like this -- and Lieberman's reasoning -- might be viewed as a stripping of religion from the Christmas tree. Lieberman says it's a "symbol" -- but of what? Of a jolly holiday dedicated to gift-giving and egg nog? Or of the birth of Jesus Christ, son of God? It's doubtful Lieberman would say the latter, so he would have to choose the former. Might not that be viewed as yet another step in the process of taking Christ out of Christmas?

Actually, most conservative Christians have given up on the Christmas tree as a religious symbol, so they probably won't care either. The Christmas symbol they care more about is the Creche. Would Lieberman allow a little Baby Jesus in the White House?

BUSH PARDONS WELL: Here's an area where George W. Bush has done much better than George Bush, Sr., Bill Clinton, or Ronald Reagan: Presidential Pardons.

The three previous presidents used the pardon process for grotesque purposes, absolving people convicted of heinous crimes merely because they were friends, political allies or campaign contributors.

Clinton's disgusting pardon of Marc Rich, a fugitive financial criminal, came after his wife had contributed large sums to the Democratic Party. He also pardoned figures from the Whitewater affair.

George Bush, Sr. pardoned six figures in the Iran-Contra affair -- a scandal in which Bush himself figured prominently. Independent Counsel Laurence Walsh said at the time, "The Iran-Contra cover-up, which has continued for more than six years, has now been completed." He also pardoned a heroin dealer and industrialist-and-campaign-contributor Armand Hammer for making illegal contributions to Richard Nixon's campaign.

Reagan pardoned two FBI officials guilty of breaking into protesters' offices during J.Edgard Hoover's reign and worst of all (for baseball fans) he pardoned George Steinbrenner for his illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon's campaign.

Bush's pardons this year were much more in the spirit of Christian forgiveness and a desire to rectify excessive punishments. He pardoned a Jehovah's Witness minister who served two years for refusing the draft in 1957, a postal worker sentenced to a year for stealing $10.90 and other comparable small offenses.

The other presidents had grossly distorted what should be an act of mercy into a banana republic-like tool of evading the rule of law. Bush has restored the pardon to its appropriate role.

December 20, 2002

IS FRIST PRO-LIFE ENOUGH? Can the Republicans have a leader who has been attacked by pro-life groups? Bill Frist, the presumed frontrunner to replace Senator Trent Lott, was, before 2001, a pro-life senator in good-standing. But then he came out advocating federal funding for research using stem cells derived from human embryos. Pro-life forces oppose stem cell research and were not pleased with Frist's role, especially since, as a doctor, he was deemed to have more influence than the average senator:

  • Richard M. Doerflinger, an official with the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, wrote in August, 2001 that Frist's position was "the tale of another senator who threw away his pro-life convictions citing a hope of medical benefits."

  • Brian Harris, president of Tennessee Right to Life said, "We were stunned and surprised to learn he supports the destruction of human life."

  • Barbara L. Lyons, the executive director of Wisconsin Right to Life, said, "Senator Bill Frist has, sadly, fallen for the silly notion that it is morally acceptable to kill some human beings for the potential benefit of others as long as you provide 'safeguards' as to who will be killed, how many, and under what circumstances. And, he has taken a giant step backwards by attempting to redefine what it means to be pro-life."

  • Randall Terry, the former head of Operation Rescue, in an article titled, "The Death of Pro-Life?" lambasted "so-called pro-life politicians" like Frist. "Anybody who says that they are pro-life and also that they favor the destruction of human embryo for so-called science is either lying or genuonely deceived. It would be like saying, "I am opposed to killing Jews in concentration camps, except when those Jews are being used in experiments that might cure a terrible disease."

    Frist seemed to partially redeem himself in pro-life eyes by embracing President Bush's more restrictive compromise proposal. So it is unclear how much animus remains toward Frist in pro-life circles. Of course, Frist's position on stem cell research may be cited by the mainstream press as a sign of the party's moderation, but anti-abortion activists have never taken well to moderation being exerted on such issues. If opposition does develop to the Tennessee senator it could well be around this issue.

    (Beliefnet's complete coverage of the stem cell debate.)
  • December 16, 2002

    PRO-LIFE DILEMMA: This study by the Alan Gutthmacher Institute poses an interesting dilemma for pro-life religious conservatives. Apparently, the number of abortions in America dropped 51,000 as a result of women taking large doses of birth control pills right after sex. In the past, pro-life advocates have opposed both traditional abortions and this "morning-after" approach because it works in part by preventing fertilized eggs from implanting in the uterus. [More on the study]

    Pro-life advocates should look hard at the moral calculus, though. From a pro-life point of view is it really better to have the 51,000 regular abortions - of fetuses many weeks old -- in order to protect egg cells that had just hours before been fertilized? I suppose if you view all life as being equally sacred - whether it's been "alive" one day or 100 - then it's a logically consistent argument.

    But this study points to a huge area of potential common ground between pro-life and pro-choice advocates: a national effort to make people more aware of this technique could prevent unwanted pregnancies and prevent abortions. Pro-life forces would have to be willing to drop their purist reluctance to discuss birth control and pro-choice forces would have to admit that reducing the number of abortions is a worthy goal.

    December 15, 2002

    BILLY GRAHAM'S MAG SPANKS FRANKLIN GRAHAM: Congratulations to Christianity Today for its courageous editorial declaring that "verbal attacks on Islam sabotage evangelism." After reviewing some of the hostile comments made by prominent Christians, the leading evangelical magazine wrote:

    "Though such comments are emotionally comprehendible, they are offensive to Muslims. They are unbalanced, and they omit key parts of the truth. Christian leaders would be better off sticking to all the facts. No one can honestly dispute that a number of Muslim-ruled nations deprive their citizens of basic rights, that some militant Muslims kill their political opponents, that Muhammad was betrothed to a six-year-old girl and waged war on his enemies. But Islam would not have become the second largest world religion if it were experienced as thoroughly evil, as these comments suggest...

    "Despite profound and irreconcilable differences, Islam and Christianity share some important things: a belief in the power of prayer, a belief in an authoritative revelation from God, and a vision for a moral, just society."

    This is courageous because one of the main offenders has been Franklin Graham. The founder of Christianity Today: Billy Graham.

    December 12, 2002

    BUSH, FAITH & GAYS: Neither President Bush nor his critics put it quite this way, but the most controversial part of his new initiative helping religious charities is really about gay rights, abortion and divorce.

    Since none of those phrases was uttered by either President Bush or his critics, this prediction requires some explanation.

    The executive order issued by President Bush would allow religious groups receiving federal money to refuse to hire "individuals of a particular religion." In his speech, President Bush didn't mention this provision, other than to say "charities and faith-based programs should not be forced to change their character or compromise their mission." (His full speech.) But the implication is that an evangelical Christian prison rehab program that uses the Bible as part of the program shouldn't be forced to hire a Jew for the frontline work.

    In attacking Bush's proposals, civil liberties groups honed in on this as proof that Bush is endorsing "tax-funded discrimination" because these organizations would be able to do what secular organization getting money cannot currently do: turn away a job applicant because of their faith. "It is simply wrong for federal contractors to discard the resumes of people with names that sound 'too Jewish' or 'too Muslim' when hiring substance abuse counselors and other professionals with government money," National Jewish Democratic Council Executive Director Ira N. Forman told the Associated Press. (Statements from other critics: People for the American Way and Americans United for Separate of Church and State).

    But privately, the issue that really has conservatives scared is not hiring a Jew or a Muslim--it's hiring a homosexual. Several courts have interpreted language like this to mean not only that you can't be forced to hire someone of a certain faith, but also that you can't be forced to hire someone who violates your group's mission.

    So, a conservative Baptist organization opposed to homosexuality shouldn't be forced to hire a homosexual. That's not merely a theoretical concern for conservative groups: In 1998, an employee of the Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children was fired when it was publicized that she was gay. She and the ACLU sued.

    "Evangelicals worry about that more than almost any other concern," John Green, a religion and politics expert at University of Akron told us a while back. Janet Folger, national director of the Center for Reclaiming America, a group that led a campaign trying to get homosexuals to change their orientation, explained, "It's not worth getting government funds if we have to hire people diametrically opposed to what we believe."

    By the same logic, a group dedicated to promoting family values shouldn't have to hire a woman who had a child out of wedlock or someone who has had an abortion.

    The Bush administration could actually avoid this problem by clarifying that the executive order only allows discrimination based on someone's faith--not because their lifestyle conflicts with the religious views of the group. As long as the Administration leaves it vague, courts will likely continue to interpret as they have in the past.

    In fairness to the Bush administration, while this is the time-bomb hot-button issue no one wants to talk about, it's not necessarily the most important part of his initiative. Here's what struck me:

    Bush was politically gutsy. He did, indeed, as critics claim, go around Congress. When he found his plan tripped up by Congress, he issued executive orders to implement his views. I happen to view this as far preferable to the approach Ronald Reagan used to take on issues like abortion. Reagan would use strong anti-abortion rhetoric and then never actually accomplish much. That way he got points for his strong views without ever having to suffer the political consequences of abortion being severely restricted. By the time pro-life forces began to get irked by this, Reagan's term was over. Bush has put his plans out there for us to judge, and eventually we'll be able to assess actual faith-based programs. He could have easily gone another two years saying, "I tried to promote this but Congress wouldn't let me."

    However, Bush can no longer claim interest in bi-partisanship. He has forfeited the right to say he takes a "bi-partisan approach" to important issues. This was a point also made recently by John DiIulio, who Bush first appointed to lead the office for faith-based initiatives. In a scathing memo, he complained that the White House walked away from compromise legislation that could have garnered broad bi-partisan support. Bush came into office saying he'd end the poisonous partisan atmosphere and instead has acted in a consistently partisan manner.

    This initiative will help the poor. It does remove some illogical obstacles to faith-based charities' receiving much-needed aid. Since many of these groups are on the frontlines of some of the most difficult and necessary social service work, this is a welcome experiment.

    This does erode the wall between church and state. Bush's executive order also reiterated that government money cannot be used to proselytize or peddle religion. But it also stresses that religious groups should not have to change their character. The result will be that "pervasively sectarian" groups--such as Prison Fellowship, whose charter states that the gospel of Jesus can rehabilitate prisoners--will be able to get money as long as they say the actual federal dollars didn't go to buy Bibles or proselytize.

    But this is unrealistic. If the Bible-based prison group gets a grant, it will earmark it to pay for the Xerox machine and the rent. Then, with the stroke of a pen, it can edit its budget and shift money that was planned to pay rent into the "Bible purchase fund." Government money will, in the end, pay for groups to teach religion.

    Conservative religious groups will eventually turn against the program. Right now, conservative groups are excited by Bush's boldness and will undoubtedly circle the wagons to ward off attacks from the dreaded ACLU and their ilk. But in the long run, the only way to make this idea work--a program that allows the government to really help religion--is if it helps all religion--including Islam, Scientology, or others that conservative Christians might not like.

    Will religious conservatives still like the faith-based initiative after taxpayer dollars go to those kinds of faiths?

    This may be good for the poor but bad for religion. The big threat here is not to civil liberties but to religion. As more and more religious groups end up on the government dole, do we really think it will have no effect on their sense of independence and integrity?

    December 10, 2002

    TITHING IT AIN'T: An amazing new study reveals that in the last few decades, Protestants have become noticeably less generous in their giving to the church--and what they do give is more likely to go to the building fund than the soup kitchen.

    Specifically, according to the church consulting company Empty Tomb, per-member giving to churches increased from 1968 to 2000, but not as fast as income. So contributions as a percentage of income dropped from 3.1% in 1968 to 2.64% in 2000, a decline of 15%.

    A greater portion went to church upkeep than to what the study calls "benevolences," or mission-oriented charitable work. As a portion of income, "benevolences" dropped 39%--from 0.66% in 1968 down to 0.4% in 2000.

    "If you give money for congregational finances you can see the nice new carpets, improved lights, better music," said Sylvia Ronsvalle, a co-founder of Empty Tomb, told the Chronicle of Philanthropy. "People need to see that same type of result and accountability when they give for missions."

    Besides the obvious possibility that people are more self-involved and less altruistic, here are some other more optimistic explanations we've heard:

  • More people are giving their "altruistic" gifts directly to mission-oriented charities because they're more effective.
  • Opposite theory: people are giving less to mission-oriented projects because they don't believe they're effective.
  • The church building boom has finally come back to haunt congregations. Many churches face fairly desperate repair needs that are taking precedence.

    What's happened at your church?
  • December 6, 2002

    CHAPTER & VERSE: Since Beliefnet recently went through bankruptcy proceedings, we learned a few things that make us wonder about the Boston archdiocese's apparent decision to go that way. According to press accounts, they want to do this as a way of consolidating all the lawsuits into one and possibly limiting their (financial) exposure.

    But I wonder if their bankruptcy lawyers are telling them what ours told us: you have to play it very, very straight - and above all, do well by the creditors -- or else creditors can force appointment of a trustee. A trustee can have great powers and could, in theory, force the Church to liquidate some of its assets including property. Or, a group of creditors could create a "creditors' committee," which in this case could be made up of some of the already successful plaintiffs in the sexual assault lawsuits. The creditor committee could have great influence in the running of the Church.

    If they're thinking of doing this as a way of disempowering the plaintiffs, they may want to think twice.

    ENCORE! A rare 50-50 tie in one of our online polls. The controversial topic: is it okay to applaud in church?

    GRATITUDE HELPERS: Two heart-warming things on the web that celebrate gratitude. One, of course, is our own organically-grown gratitude circle. The other is a warm feature created by Brother David Stendl-Rast in which you light a virtual candle and post a message of gratitude. Very sweet.

    December 3, 2002

    Lecturing to hormone-crazed teenagers about abstinence actually works? That seems to be the implication of a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control showing a 16% drop in the number of teens having intercourse compared to ten years earlier. And, according to the Newsweek cover story that brought this issue once again to our attention, the youngsters now pledging abstinence were influenced by in-school abstinence programs, like the ones President Bush wants to fund.

    Is this a "Dan Quayle Was Right" moment? You may recall that in the 1980s liberals, media pundits and, well, just about everyone mocked the former Vice President after he gave a speech chastising the TV character Murphy Brown for having a child out of wedlock. A few years later, as the out-of-wedlock birth rates continued to climb, many grudgingly admitted that Quayle was right to pick on that issue and the powerful impact of media role models.

    More recently, many left-of-center folks have mocked the movement led by religious Christians and conservative Republicans to promote abstinence in the schools.

    I admit to being one of the skeptics. I just figured that the forces driving teens toward sex - hormones and pressure - would easily overwhelm a well-meaning preacher with a slide projector. I also figured the abstinence approach was based partly on a false premise; that many teens really would rather not have sex but were feeling pressured into doing it. My memory of adolescence was that most teens wanted to have sex but felt there wasn't enough supply to fill the demand, in part because it was taboo. This may reveal a bit too much about my own adolescent frustrations, but I assumed this was the reality of the world.

    Instead, it turns out President Bush and other advocates of abstinence programs were right: there is a large group of teens in a gray area - they would rather not have sex but need some good reasons or peer support to say no.

    But judging from the Newsweek article they are not abstaining primarily for moral reasons. These programs seem to be at their most effective when they stress not Sodom and Gomorrah but syphillus and gonorrhea. Chris, one of the celibate teens profiled, joined a Christian abstinence group called Teen Advisors. "We watched their slide show in eighth grade and it just has pictures of all these STDs [sexually transmitted diseases]," he says. "It's one of the grossest things you've ever seen. I didn't want to touch a girl, like, forever."

    Bush and company were not silly, it turns out, to argue that abstinence programs could make a difference. It's now time to turn to the moral debate, which as so far been largely avoided.

    Since opponents of abstinence could simply mock its previously-presumed fuddy-duddy ineffectiveness, they never had to actually argue that teen sex is morally okay (which is what they mostly believe). And since conservatives are always afraid of being cast as prim Puritans, they have avoided emphasizing the moral argument. So, let's have at it: if teen sex could occur without disease, would it be morally wrong?

    Anyone out there want to take a stab at that argument?

    * * *

    TOO LATE TO BE A VIRGIN? By the way, I'm not buying the concept of "renewed virgins." Most abstinence programs celebrate not only virginity but "renewed virgins," or "born again virgins" i.e. folks who have already had intercourse but now are saying they're going to abstain for awhile. Maybe I'm just a stickler for linguistic precision but it seems to me a "virgin" who has had sex is like a zebra without stripes. It raises the question of just how many times one can have sex, and for how many years, and still have the option of becoming a "renewed virgin" once one has stopped. Is it too late for Ben Afleck?

    December 2, 2002

    ROBERTSON'S ARTFUL DODGE: Did you catch the ingenious way Pat Robertson got out of a trap set for him by George Stephanopoulos on Sunday? Robertson has been bashing Islam as evil. Bush has been saying it is a "religion of peace," and even indirectly rebuked Robertson for saying otherwise. How, I wondered, was Robertson going to avoid breaking with the Bush Administration over this crucial issue? Here's what he came up with: Bush is clearly peddling a "lie" about Islam but it's okay to lie as part of the worldwide war against terrorism.

    FAITH-BASED BOMBSHELL: John DiIulio's memo blasting the Bush White House for lacking any interest in domestic policy is worth reading, especially if you're interested in the role of religion in public life. His comments -- which he has since apologized for -- were in a letter to Esquire writer Ron Suskind. DiIulio, you may recall, was chosen by Bush to head up his faith-based initiative, an effort to help churches and other faith-based charities to help the poor.

    His memo describes the White House staff as having a "breathtaking" lack of knowledge or interest in policy (as opposed to politics). But what specifically did they do wrong in terms of the faith-based initiative?

    DiIulio says Bush had the chance for a high-quality bi-partisan bill that would have helped the poor and gotten passed by Congress. Instead, he opted for a much more conservative bill with less chance of passing but more palatable to conservatives.

    "I said so, wrote memos, and so on for the first six weeks. But, hey, what's that fat, out-of-the-loop professor guy know; besides, he says he'll be gone in six months. As one senior staff member chided me at a meeting at which many junior staff were present and all ears, 'John, get a faith bill, any faith bill.'"

    Indeed, Bush's proposal did die in Congress. This is distressing for those of us who believe that faith-based groups play an important role in helping the poor. Is it possible to balance the desire to help with the need to maintain separation of church and state? Yes, if you're careful and scrupulous. Dilulio's memo would seem to indicate that the White House is not actually that interested in threading that needle.

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