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Taking a Leap of Faith

4 minute read
Karen Tumulty/Washington

Al Gore has been sounding positively soulful lately. Yes, that Al Gore. In campaign appearances the former divinity student talks about the struggle between good and evil, and invokes Jesus Christ’s parable of the sower to explain how media violence subverts children. In New Hampshire, Gore compared the alienation of Cain–the first murderer–with the forces that drove two teenagers to commit the same sin in Colorado. He mused to a Washington Post columnist that society has finally reached “the end of a 400-year period of allergy to faith.”

Call it the Gospel According to Al. Last week the Vice President added to his litany an idea borrowed from Republican theology, one that would have been considered heresy among Democrats a few years ago: giving federal money to religious groups that take a “faith-based” approach to curing social ills. Gore would expand the concept, already being used in carrying out welfare reform, to services such as drug treatment, homeless aid and the prevention of youth violence. “I believe that faith in itself is sometimes essential to spark a personal transformation,” Gore declared at an Atlanta Salvation Army center.

That is a sentiment that, in variation, finds a chorus of amens in almost every presidential campaign this year. In Texas, Governor George W. Bush says his proudest innovation is a program that allows welfare recipients to be given assistance from faith-based organizations. On Capitol Hill the concept has been championed by Republican John Kasich, another presidential contender. And former Senator Bill Bradley, Gore’s only Democratic rival, has said that religious organizations are crucial to building a “civil society.”

George W.’s father might have called them points of light. So how did the approach that Democrats once ridiculed become part of their dogma? It probably happened with the passage in 1996 of welfare reform, a law that shifted government’s mission from providing for people to changing them. Included in that law, with quiet support from the White House, was an amendment by Republican Senator John Ashcroft that let churches and religious groups bid on government contracts to provide job training and other services. Since then, Gore has highlighted many of those efforts in his travels as Vice President, touting the prayer and Bible study included in a job-training program in San Antonio, Texas, and the spiritual component in a San Francisco initiative to get welfare mothers off drugs.

Civil liberties groups have raised predictable warnings about introducing religion into government services. But the more interesting criticism comes from some religious organizations themselves, which are worried that they will lose their sense of mission once they have to compete for federal dollars and abide by federal regulations. A Gore supporter put it to him bluntly last week in a letter. “I know you. I like you. You mean well. But this time, as we say in Tennessee and Texas, you’ve ripped your britches,” wrote James Dunn of the Baptist Joint Committee, whose group favors a clear separation between church and state. “The notion that public funds will not alter the religious character of faith-based programs requires a leap of faith that even Kierkegaard could not negotiate.”

Gore’s opponents take a cynical view of his new, more public emphasis on religion in the aftermath of Littleton. “I welcome converts, but I suspect it has something to do with the political calendar and polls showing that a majority of Americans now think our problems are spiritual rather than economic,” says G.O.P. presidential contender Gary Bauer. Nor can piety hurt, when polls increasingly show the downside of Gore’s association with Bill Clinton. The latest TIME/CNN poll indicates almost half the public views Gore as too close to the President.

The Vice President’s defenders note that he was preaching the power of faith long before it was cool, at least among Democrats. In his 1992 best-selling environmental book, Gore wrote of “a spiritual crisis in modern civilization that seems to be based on an emptiness at its center” and declared his own “unshakable belief in God as creator and sustainer.” But as Gore is learning, it can be tricky–particularly for a Democrat–to bare his soul as part of a campaign roll-out. Which may be why he felt it necessary to summon religion writers to the White House last week and declare, a bit defensively, “I’m just trying to be who I am.”

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