Quietly but steadily, the Bush administration is pursuing a seismic change in American politics and policy through its so-called faith-based initiative.

When it was announced early in Bush’s first term, the faith-based initiative met with broad controversy. Some critics—both secular and religious—raised concerns that such a program would violate the church–state divide, while others suggested that it would amount to vote-buying among poor constituencies. The Reverend Herbert Lusk of North Philadelphia’s Greater Exodus Baptist Church, for example, endorsed Bush during the Republican National Convention of 2000; in 2002 the social-service arm of his church received a $1 million grant from the U.S. Administration for Children and Families.

Today this attention has largely subsided, and the initiative is moving forward, principally through administrative fiat. Its ultimate goal, President Bush announced in a 2001 speech at the University of Notre Dame, is to make “a determined assault on poverty”: to bring the war on poverty into a third phase, beyond the Great Society and Clinton-era welfare reform. The central idea is not to spend more or less, but to spend differently, with the government providing the resources and private agencies delivering the services. More particularly, the Bush administration proposes to “level the playing field” for religious institutions in the government’s procurement of social services. It officially asks for government “neutrality” toward churches, to “bring the days of discrimination against religious groups” to an end, as President Bush put it in 2002.

President Bush wants to “enlist, equip, enable, empower, and expand” the participation of religious organizations wherever their approaches are deemed relevant to the ends of government. Building on what the president has described as the “long tradition of accommodating and encouraging religious institutions when they pursue public goals,” the faith-based initiative is guided by a theory of the limited state that was evident in the work of Bush’s religious advisers long before 2001. A product of serious thinkers with precise theological convictions, the initiative draws on doctrines that first emerged in European Christianity’s conflict with liberalism and socialism in the late 19th century. Rooted in Calvinism and Catholicism, these doctrines assign a public purpose to religious organizations and ordain government to help those organizations fulfill their public purpose without interference. If implemented in the United States, a sustained program animated by these doctrines could mean a truly radical change in governance . . .


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