DETROIT -- It's rather hilarious listening to liberals rail against President Bush's establishment of a White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

Mixing politics and religion by providing taxpayer dollars to faith-based organizations would offend the Constitution, asserted the American Civil Liberties Union. Added a New York Times editorial: "There is also an inherent danger in government's picking and choosing which groups to help." Such qualms haven't stopped the left from favoring government aid to faith-based groups of which it approves, however. One of the biggest is Detroit's Focus:HOPE, whose founder, Fr. William Cunningham, was an activist priest. True, Focus:HOPE doesn't emphasize its religious, much less Catholic, roots, but religious values still inform every aspect of its operations.

As for government picking and choosing which groups to help, that has long been a staple of left-wing politics. It is on display in the legal battle over racial preferences at the University of Michigan. U- M President Lee Bollinger just the other day argued to a federal court that unless his state-supported institution were permitted to favor African-American applicants to its law school, the cause of diversity would be seriously harmed. (An argument which, let it be said, seemed to undercut his other major contention: that racial preferences are just one factor among many in choosing which students to admit.)

What Democrats really fear, of course, is that the Bush initiative might drive a political wedge into the heart of the liberal coalition. As the last election vividly demonstrated, Democrats hold a virtual monopoly on the black vote. A mere 8 percent of African- Americans voted for George W. Bush nationwide. Republicans like Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts, an African-American, have been urging their colleagues to take their case to inner-city churches where the social conservatism of the GOP might have some appeal. That the Bush team might have some crass political considerations for its faith-based initiative, however, doesn't answer the question of whether such an approach is a good idea. In truth, that's debatable. The right should be almost as nervous about the idea as the left.

For while there is indeed danger in bringing religion into the heart of politics, there is an equal danger in bringing politics into the heart of religion. The strength and energy of religion in America -- unlike in Europe, where organized religion is widely supported by taxes yet is in deep decline -- comes precisely from the fact that it is seen as above politics. And the success of church-related social outreach efforts is closely related to their religious mission.

Church-run soup kitchens don't just feed bodies. They nurture souls, which in turn makes it far more likely that those bodies will one day become self-sufficient and productive. George W. Bush understands that. He insists that his aim is simply to stop discriminating against faith-based organizations as potential deliverers of social goods. He also claims that good bookkeeping can prevent the use of federal funds for purely religious purposes.

But will that really be so easy? Even if the Bush team succeeds at this delicate balancing act, will future administrations resist the temptations to pressure churches to do their political will -- just as African-American political leaders like the late Coleman Young pressured inner-city churches to vote the right way (or risk losing Head Start and other funds)?

To the extent Republicans have crass political motives at heart, they should be warned: Two can play that game. Unless some bright lines between church and state can be established, Democrats are likely to be better at playing the game than Republicans -- whatever they may be saying now about the Bush initiative. At least educational vouchers, which would have used taxpayer funds to achieve a secular purpose, would have gone to parents rather than directly to schools.

The GOP might be better off arguing for an even bigger tax cut. That would give citizens the ability to support faith-based organizations of their own choosing and then hold them accountable for results. Donors would have a higher incentive than Washington bureaucrats -- even Republican bureaucrats -- to place their dollars where they will actually do some good.
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