Rick Santorum didn't just run against Harris Wofford for the U.S. Senate seat from Pennsylvania--he mocked him. Santorum ridiculed Wofford's interest in national service (a bunch of people singing "Kumbaya") and implied that his opponent was an out-of-touch, free-spending liberal.

I was personally offended, as I considered Wofford to be one of the greatest public servants of our time. (He was an aide to Martin Luther King, President Kennedy, a longtime advocate of service and civil rights). Who was this mean-spirited, smirky guy to denigrate someone who'd given so much?

So I was more than a bit surprised to see that Wofford and Santorum had teamed up for a project to find common ground on the issue of faith-based and community service. When I asked Wofford, "How could you?" he gave me a knowing smile that seem to say, "Someday you'll be old enough to understand that you can accomplish more in life seeking agreement than nursing grudges."

When Wofford, with whom I worked for a while when he was CEO of the Corporation for National Service, asked me to serve on this commission in my capacity as co-founder of the multifaith media business, Beliefnet, I was too curious to say no.

I am usually skeptical of "common ground" efforts, not because I don't like common ground but because such groups often end up finding agreement on wee little issues in their desperation to achieve consensus on something. ("We're pleased to announce a bipartisan agreement that 8½ X 11 paper is preferable to legal-sized and that drivers should obey local traffic ordinances.")

On one level, this common-ground group on faith-based service-which today releases its recommendations--was a failure. They did not, in fact, come up with breakthrough agreements on the most contentious issues-whether religiously oriented charities should be forced to hire gays if that contradicted their religious views, and whether programs that proselytize should get federal funding.

But as I sat through these meetings listening to utterly civil discussions among people who regularly sue each other--people from the ACLU seated side by side with religious conservatives--I realized that the "hot button" issues and what's important are often two different things.

Indeed, this happens over and over in Washington: What lawmakers debate is determined by what has the most symbolic importance, not what's most significant on the ground. For instance, in 1993 when Congress passed the legislation that created AmeriCorps, the community-service program, the most contentious issue was whether AmeriCorps benefits were too generous compared to those received by military veterans. This controversy nearly sank the entire bill, and yet since the program launched it has been utterly irrelevant to its functioning.

When it comes to helping religiously oriented charities, this dynamic is also true. The question of whether government should help "faith-saturated" programs--e.g. programs for which preaching the gospel is an important part of the charity's approach--is symbolically of huge importance. It relates to the Constitution and religious freedom. As a practical matter, though, a tiny percentage of programs would be affected by such a provision. Same with the issue of employment discrimination. Forcing religions to hire people if it goes against their religious beliefs is symbolically monumental. But very few groups ever even confront such a dilemma.

Politicians tend to focus on these sorts of contentious issues because they're politically more likely to energize their constituencies; interest groups tend to focus on these because they're trained to be vigilant against worst-case scenarios (and want to help their direct-mail fund-raising); and lawyers tend to focus on these because they are intellectually interesting and grist for lawsuits aplenty.

The group decided not to get bogged down in the issues on which they couldn't find agreement and search instead for those where they could. And, lo and behold, they found quite a number of things that are downright boring but will actually have a much bigger impact on promoting faith-based service.

For instance, many foundation and corporate philanthropies have rules against providing grants even to non-controversial charities with a religious connection. If they'd reassess their guidelines, we'd probably see a big increase in the grants going to faith-based charities from private foundations.

The group concluded that the biggest obstacles to faith-based charities getting help is not the Constitution but size. They tend to be small, and small charities always have trouble getting government aid. The paperwork and regulations are too complicated. So some of the recommendations went to solve that.

Perhaps most exciting, many around the table agreed that a key way to promote faith-based charity is to expand national and community service on the AmeriCorps model. It turns out that when government provides aid in the form of people power-sending a volunteer or AmeriCorps member to help a local church-it's much easier to steer clear of constitutional issues, and it's much easier to reduce the burden on small charities.

If all these recommendations were adopted--and there's really no reason they shouldn't be, because they're mostly fairly non-controversial--it probably wouldn't even rate an article in your local newspaper. It wouldn't show up on any spicy TV campaign ads, and you wouldn't argue about it at the barber shop. But it would do a great deal to help religiously oriented charities to help the poor. Maybe I'll forgive Rick Santorum after all.

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