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Last week, the Bush administration launched its policy of encouraging religious associations to enter into active partnership with the federal government, in order to meet what the president called “social needs in America’s communities.”

The series of actions the president took have the common expressed purpose of energizing the capacity of non-governmental “helping” associations to care for those in need. The president is particularly concerned with removing the premise that there is something wrong with admitting the motivations of religious faith into the noble American ambition of doing for our neighbor what we would have him do for us.

Despite the great care that the administration has taken to reassure the “wall of separation” crowd, the usual suspects have raised a great howl. President Bush seems determined to stick to his guns, as well he should. In fact, I hope he will combine with his nuanced and moderate policy initiatives a bold defense of the profoundly American nature of the project.

Our deepest principles as a people teach us that the only enduring basis for civic justice is our shared acknowledgment of the reality of the Creator. This is no more true in the so-called “helping” activities of social repair than in the normal functioning of self-government. But President Bush should remind the country at every opportunity that whether we need special help from our neighbor or not, the ongoing claim we make for our dignity to be respected by those around us is itself, in America, rooted in our common understanding that self-government is not a choice we have made, but a duty we have received.

President Bush’s plan is a blend of proposals grounded in the belief that real help for citizens in need will come chiefly from within their own communities, and that among the most important sources of such help will be those explicitly connected to a faith community.

The first group of proposals concentrates on increasing the amount of charitable donations by American taxpayers and businesses. The new policies would allow the scores of millions of Americans who cannot now deduct charitable gifts from their taxable income to be able to do so, permitting individuals over 59 to contribute their IRA funds to charities without having to pay income tax on their gifts, and providing civil liability protection to businesses that donate equipment and facilities to charitable groups.

Additionally, the president has established a White House office charged with “leveling the playing field so that faith-based organizations can compete on an equal footing with their secular counterparts.”

The president identified three criteria that must be met. First, each such organization must have a secular counterpart, so no one is “forced to accept” services from a faith-based provider. Second, there can be no expressed subsidy of religion in that no government funds may be used for proselytizing or other inherently religious activities. And third, government should be neutral, not hostile, to faith-based providers and should focus on results.

Finally, President Bush announced a series of new government aid efforts such as establishing a compassion capital fund to highlight best practices and provide technical assistance and start-up money to promising small programs so that they may grow to significant size.

Taken together, these proposals constitute primarily a recognition that it is citizens, not bureaucrats, who best help other citizens in need, and secondarily (but crucially) a recognition that they do so in large part through their membership in communities of faith — that is, they do so because they are believers.

Predictably, the president’s order that the distribution of federal money to helping associations cease its ingrown discrimination against faith-based groups has “alarmed” those who believe that the Constitution requires that all public activities in America be inoculated against religious motivation of any kind. Such objectors view the Bush proposal’s careful articulation of requirements against proselytizing or spiritual coercion as na?ve at best. They believe that charity, motivated by religious conviction, will inevitably be colored by it and that if such charity is publicly funded, such funds will accordingly be, in effect, used for the unconstitutional advance of religion.

It is agreed on all sides, of course, that the establishment of specific creeds of religious belief by federal action is unconstitutional. The important disagreement comes when we recognize why it is that faith-based associations are so effective in helping people in distress and why they are so eager to do so.

Believers understand the moral nature of man much better than the secular world ever can, and that means that believers understand the nature of the problem that social programs are attempting to solve. The painful fact is that underlying much of the systemic social distress that the Bush proposal hopes to address is the moral bankruptcy of our secular age. Drug abuse, teen-age pregnancy, crime, educational failure, the challenges of impoverished single mothers — these are not technical problems, but the inevitable fruit of the systematic attempt to treat human life and the pursuit of happiness as matters of arbitrary human will without moral content.

The big lie has been that happiness is a matter of the technique of our “lifestyle,” rather than of our devotion to moral principle. And for all their froth about the Constitution, what the First Amendment “wall of separation” crowd really hates and fears is a renewed national understanding that American life is essentially devoted to the proposition that life is a moral project because God created us that way. This truth is the real help that we all need and is the key to the effectiveness of church-based assistance programs.

Americans who need the kind of help that addresses “social problems” are not especially immoral people. But most of them are suffering chiefly from the effects of the immorality and amorality of a society that has ceased to point the way effectively toward real happiness.

For decades, enormous harm has been done by the perverse desire of government bureaucratic “help” to shield its charges from the fact that human happiness is chiefly to be found in selfless devotion to family and community life that is larger than ourselves, and which requires self-discipline and sometimes painful effort. And this same government “help” siphoned off hundreds of billions of the dollars that could have been dedicated to truly effective help, leaving the churches and citizens precious little with which to do the job correctly.

The Bush plan is a basket of modest proposals that, taken together, may put a significantly greater portion of the resources aimed at assisting people back into the hands of those who understand how to help the whole person, and why that matters. As such, it represents an implicit assertion of the truth that helping people is a moral — and therefore intrinsically religious — activity. This connection may alarm the “People for the American Way,” but it is as American as the Fourth of July. The argument about letting federal dollars go to religious associations represents a crucial opportunity to make the broader argument that religious faith is at the heart of American public life.

For it is the first principle of the American Republic that accomplishing the justice all good men recognize to be their duty, requires — at some level — an acknowledgment that the source of our duty and of the nature of our tasks is beyond human will. The illusion that feeding the poor, encouraging the discouraged and exhorting the tempted are different species of moral behavior from respecting the civic rights of our more self-sufficient fellow citizens is arbitrary.

Americans have succeeded in self-government because we formed a “helping association” for ourselves — the Union — which explicitly recognized God as the Author of our human nature and of the moral truth we are bound to follow. America itself is a “faith-based” institution, and our national pursuit of justice is ultimately grounded in the recognition that it is our personal as well as common duty before God.

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