The Magazine

Faith No More?

The president's signature initiative enters the maw of the U.S. Senate.

Sep 10, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 48 • By JOE LOCONTE
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Indeed, it is beginning to look as though Lieberman and his liberal allies may be the ones drifting from the political mainstream. Members of his own party argue that although Americans frown on discrimination, most view the independence of religious groups as sacrosanct. Democrat Tony Hall, for example, cosponsored the House faith-based bill and fought to keep the employment protection for religious charities. Zell Miller worries that partisan posturing threatens to block inclusion of faith-based organizations in public efforts to help the poor. "It was a good idea when Democrats were proposing it," said Miller in a dear-colleague letter, "and it is still a good idea now that President Bush is proposing it."

Others agree. Former Democratic congressman Andrew Young—a confidant of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.—calls the contested civil rights provisions "virtually identical" to those already approved by Democrats. "No force in our society has served more effectively than our nation’s many and varied traditions of faith," he wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal. "They should not be locked out of applying for government funding."

Such criticism hints at a deeper problem for Democrats. Senator Evan Bayh, the Indiana Democrat who currently heads the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, says his colleagues’ indifference to religious concerns is making churchgoers uncomfortable in their party. "Many middle-class Americans wonder if Democrats are condescending, cultural elitists who can’t relate to people like them," he told a recent DLC gathering. "We have a credibility problem when it comes to values."

Bush badly wants a bill to keep his initiative alive, but conservatives say he will have his own credibility problems if he signs legislation that leaves faith-based groups vulnerable to the secular state. Is there a clean compromise in sight?

There is talk of introducing a minimalist version of the charitable choice law, retaining the federal hiring protection for religious organizations but leaving unsettled the issue of local anti-discrimination rules. Forces on both sides will find reasons to dislike it.

Joe Loconte is the William E. Simon fellow in religion and a free society at the Heritage Foundation.