Of all President Bush’s proposals to date, the most difficult and potentially most transformational is the centerpiece of his compassionate conservatism, the plan for Federal support of faith-based social programs. Fully competitive school choice and full privatization of Social Security would certainly be more dramatic, but these aren’t in the cards for awhile and don’t represent as bold a leap into the unknown. Not that it will be brand new; Catholic Charities USA has been receiving government funds for years. But the ambition for this plan and its ultimate scope could be quite sweeping.
There are problems to address, of course, and the usual secular humanist and First Amendment crowds will be out in droves. My concern would be more about the corruption or impairment of the mission of the faith-based organizations by government than any church-state or proselytization problems. In fact, some of the latter will no doubt be beneficial in the often necessary behavior modification of the recipients. And there are operating details to be worked out, but we should not fear innovations that have the power to transform lives if they are well structured and offered as an option to public programs on a competitive basis. This is compassionate, but also empowerment conservatism, much like school choice, because it is bottom-up driven, not top-down. Alexis de Tocqueville noted over 160 years ago that the genius of America lay not in its government but in its free associations. To a large extent we have allowed government to supplant independent charities and have come to rely on a coercive one-size-fits-all approach to treating social pathologies that usually creates dependence. We have often forgotten that many of these pathologies have as their root cause a spiritual void that must be filled, that behavior matters, and that true welfare reform requires more than money.