DALLAS — Dinner party etiquette dictates you never mix religion and politics.

Yet President Bush’s executive order this week creating a White House office to encourage community and faith-based groups to compete for billions of federal dollars already seems to be changing the rules of table debate.

Still, all the chatter misses the central question of whether faith-based and community organizations may actually do a better job than government bureaucrats in serving the needy.

The Bush effort may provide the answer. The plan itself is half proposal, half paradox. The president says he wants the community and faith-based initiative to identify programs that are successful in providing social services to the poor, abused and down and out — and then help those service providers do more of it.

The paradox, however, is that so many of these providers can do their good works precisely because government has stayed out of their way. And so the people who run them don’t have to waste half their workday jumping through bureaucratic hoops.

Take, for example, Rudy Carrasco, a 33-year-old associate director of Harambee Christian Family Center in Pasadena, Calif. His center provides summer and after-school programs for about 70 African-American and Latino youths.

Located a stone’s throw from Los Angeles, a tinderbox of competing racial agendas, the center preaches racial harmony to two groups that are, just a few miles away, often at each other’s throats. A big part of the racial drama in Los Angeles — as in Miami, New York, Dallas and a half-dozen other American cities — is an ongoing power struggle between African-Americans and Latinos. But, at Harambee, there is no power struggle. The project’s directors, like its clientele and neighborhood, are black and brown, and racial tolerance is promoted.

The Stanford-educated Carrasco sees the center’s mission as “developing indigenous leadership” in the shepherds of tomorrow. That’s no small thing given that these are the very same “at-risk” kids on which many public schools and traditional youth programs have all but given up.

Asked what accounts for the difference of opinion in how to best serve the needy, Carrasco suggested that it has a lot to do with geography. Some feel free to lecture others about the proper way of servicing the poor, he said, because they don’t have to do it themselves or even go anywhere near the places where it gets done.

“There’s something about having to live with the consequences of your decisions that affects the way you think,” said Carrasco, who lives in the same neighborhood he serves.

Carrasco believes that, in many cases, private organizations operating on faith work more efficiently — and more tirelessly — than bureaucratic institutions operating on budgets and a bottom line.

“When people believe in what they’re doing, when they have faith, they work hard even when the money runs out,” he said. “With government programs, when the money runs out, it’s over. Everybody goes home.”

That is one reason why the kids who find refuge at Harambee, like others who live in need — the poor, the homeless and the forgotten — may tend to view faith-based groups and religious institutions in a better light than they do government.

They are not alone. Many African-Americans seem to place more trust in their churches than they do in their government, and Mexican immigrants in search of services are much more likely to turn to their priest than to elected officials. If those in need are forced to choose their savior, they are not likely to choose a government bureaucrat over their church, synagogue or mosque.

That debate is much different from the one that captivated the media after Bush launched his faith-based initiative this week. Worker bees at the grass roots don’t seem all that interested in the issue of whether giving federal dollars to religious groups breaches the separation of church and state.

Nor do organizations who serve the poor seem very interested in a handout from Washington. In fact, some of them, seeking to maintain independence, may refuse the offering.

In the meantime, those critics who so quickly dismissed the Bush proposal because they believe that government — and government alone — must shoulder the responsibility for washing the masses, should watch their table manners and proceed with humility.

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