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Faith-Based Bureaucracy
June 27, 2001

In 1994, a wizened nun in a homespun habit took the podium at Washington's elegant Shoreham Hotel and arrested the attention of a nation. Unlike the polite bipartisans who preceded her, Mother Theresa looked out over the ballroom of presidents and prime ministers and issued a challenge: a call to charity. She told the power-brokers "The poor are very great people." She told the abortion proponents, "I want the child." And in a stroke that violated every statute conceived by any low-level law clerk intent on forever divorcing church and state, she unlocked the secret of her success. "We are not social workers….For we must bring the presence of God into your family."

Yesterday, another speaker behind another podium addressed the same subject, but his vision was quite different. In a bid to sell the nation's mayors on his plan to open federal welfare programs to faith-based charities, President Bush assured his audience that "funds will be spent on social services, not worship services." No doubt the President shares Mother Theresa's compassionate intent, but his requirement that churches "segregate their religious and service messages" and his vow to "respect the separation of church and state" strips Christian charity of its essential motivation.

Eliminating suffering is a noble pursuit - and a temporary one. Free clothes wear out and hungry people don't long remain full, but those whose spiritual and physical needs are simultaneously satisfied receive a greater sustenance. Jesus' admonition to "Love as I have loved you" propels Christian generosity, but remove that first cause, and compassion becomes a single act culminating in itself. The sacrifice is not multiplied because the motive is muzzled.

When a welfare check passes from bureaucrat to beneficiary, no kindness marks the exchange. The recipient expects the entitlement, and the donor - known only to the IRS - makes no voluntary sacrifice. As a result, the handout inspires neither shame nor accountability.

Churches enlisted to build Mr. Bush's version of the Great Society risk the same malady. Without the freedom to point those they serve to the faith that drives their service, they're reduced to federal deputies with no higher call.

Consider the case of Rev. Martha Overall, an Episcopal priest who feeds 100 children a day in one of New York's poorest neighborhoods. She has no interest in the President's plan. Rev. Overall told the Washington Post, "I never want to do the bidding of a politician in order to get a check to take care of these children….I believe you're undercutting the essence of religion if you're paying someone to be religious."

Mr. Bush proposes just such a payment plan. He promises to "put the federal government…squarely on the side of America's armies of compassion." But this scheme would put the federal government squarely in the way. There's a reason the Savior's commendation does not read, "I was hungry and a federal grant fed me, I was thirsty and the government gave me drink." It's the same reason Mother Theresa's sisters are not social workers. Agencies administer entitlements; individuals offer charity. There's a difference, and those who see it should steer clear of this bureaucratic boondoggle and continue their own quiet work apart from Washington's "armies of compassion."

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