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Politics of faith – Bush, Gore back faith-based strategies

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American politics, which traditionally has kept itself separate from religion, increasingly is looking to partnerships between government and faith-based organizations to address tough social problems, The Economist reports.

“These days politicians are looking with a kindlier eye at the work of ‘faith-based’ groups,” the magazine says in its Feb. 12-18 edition.

Champions of government support for religious groups include the two leading Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, respectively – Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

“Their admirers claim that such organizations are better than the state at fighting drug addiction, illiteracy and poverty,” the Economist says. “They say that the enormous secular system built up to deal with such problems, much of it during Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, has produced 35 years of failure.”

Early research on the subject “suggests that these groups often have much higher success rates than government-run organizations,” the magazine says.

Those findings have increased support for using religious groups for social purposes.

But others worry that broadening government’s ties with such groups will reduce government funds for secular groups. And they say it’s unconstitutional for government to finance groups that hire workers on religious grounds.

U.S. Sen. John Ashcroft, a Missouri Republican, has introduced legislation to expand “charitable choice” – a provision of the 1996 welfare-reform bill that allows religious groups to compete for government welfare contracts.

The House and Senate both are expected to pass the measure, the Economist reports, expanding charitable choice to include every major area of federal service, including help for the homeless, drug addicts and the elderly.

“Most important, it would let government money flow to groups whose chief aim is to win new converts,” the magazine says.

Gore supports the past policy of barring “pervasively sectarian” groups from receiving government contractt, the magazine says, but Bush says a group’s effectiveness reflects its religious message, and he advocates fewer restrictions on the religious goals of faith-based programs.

The courts have not yet considered the constitutionality of the issue, the  Economist says, but some liberals plan to challenge the Ashcroft legislation if it passes.

Yet it is liberal churches that are most likely to take advantage of the expansion of charitable choice, the magazine says.

It cites a 1999 survey by University of Arizona sociologist Mark Chaves that found conservative and fundamentalist congregations are skeptical about charitable choice, fearing meddling by government in their business.

Liberal congregations, particularly black churches, are more willing to seek federal money to support their work, the magazine says.

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