Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

More Religion, Please

James Skillen


August 28, 2000

Some folks are getting tired of it. Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush speaks often of faith and went so far as to declare that Jesus Christ is the political philosopher he most reveres. On the Democratic side, one of Al Gore's advisors famously said last year that the party would "take back God" this election, and Gore has been open about religion, to the extent of selecting a practicing Jew, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, as his running mate. All this is too much for some. As a letter to a local newspaper recently put it, "Great. All the candidates have religion. Now can we get back to what's important—to issues?"

But, of course, religion is hardly irrelevant to public policy. Gore's environmentalism and his desire to use government on behalf of the poor have religious roots. Bush's conviction that our great prosperity must be put at the service of great purposes comes from his faith. All of this can be pretty nebulous, though. A piece by the Washington Post's Dana Milbank a week ago proposed that our two major parties are searching for the "moral high ground," leaving aside the theocrats on the right and the cultural relativists on the left as they reach for a morality above divisions in the center.

But there is no common religion that will transcend all. People generically believe, but no one believes generically. Religion is always about these oughts or those, about whether some thing is a god, or rather an idol. We rightly should ask those who wish for political power how government ought to deal with the divergent faiths of our land.

It is, for instance, the reality of differing and even conflicting faiths or moral visions that propels the demand for school choice, even beyond concern over test scores or physical safety. Schools always teach and embody some worldview, and all families don't agree about which one is right. Though Bush doesn't make so much of it, his education proposals admit the legitimacy of schools other than those falsely labeled common to all. Gore, alas, although promising in his acceptance speech to "give more power back to the parents" so that each family can pass on its "basic lessons of responsibility and decency," is all for government schools and all against acknowledging that other schools also serve the public. Running mate Lieberman, who has had kind words for school choice, has been forced to swallow them.

More encouraging are the stances of the two parties on that other hot current pluralist issue, Charitable Choice. Bush has long supported fully implementing and expanding this policy change that welcomes faith-based organizations as providers of government-funded welfare services while ensuring that no one needing help is religiously coerced. Gore, to the consternation of many supporters, endorsed Charitable Choice last year and said it should be expanded to services such as substance-abuse treatment. But he's not said much since then.

Gore and Lieberman now have a chance to put their convictions into practice. When President Clinton and House Republicans this summer cobbled together a measure to help poor communities, the White House agreed that faith-based groups could compete for federal drug-treatment funds but insisted on weakening their Charitable Choice protections. A counterpart bill awaits action in the Senate, this one with strong protections for faith groups and even a section that would expand Charitable Choice to all federal programs. And one of the proud co-sponsors is Sen. Joe Lieberman, now Al Gore's running mate.

The House has already passed its weak bill. The stronger Senate bill awaits action after Labor Day. Al and Joe, here is your chance to stand for robust religion, not mere vague spirituality.

—Stanley Carlson-Thies, Director of Social Policy Studies
   Center for Public Justice


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”