Faith in the Center?

Godly Republic: A Centrist Blueprint for America's Faith-Based Future by John J. DiIulio Jr. (University of California Press, 310 pages, $24.95)

Despite all the talk of America's culture war, this country has been blessed by an absence of bloody religious conflict; we've been spared anything like Europe's Thirty Years' War, and our most serious internal war involved race, not religion. To be sure, some of the clashes between Protestants and Catholics toward the end of the 19th century evoke a Kulturkampf, but they do not even come close to the troubles characteristic of the countries from which so many of our Protestants and Catholics originally came.

John DiIulio, the University of Pennsylvania professor who was the first head of President George W. Bush's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, believes Americans need reminding of the many ingenious ways this country avoided past divisive religious conflicts, so we can overcome current divisions in a sensible and moderate fashion.

DiIulio begins with the Founders, who he insists were neither non-believers nor zealots. Madison, the Founder whom DiIulio admires most, was "a committed Christian in the Reformed (or Protestant) tradition." At the same time, he was also responsible for such classics of religious liberty as "Memorial and Remonstrance" and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The republic Madison and his colleagues created was, in DiIulio's term, a godly one. It would have no monarch claiming to derive his political authority from God. But neither would it be without strongly entrenched moral ideas associated with religion in general and, it must be acknowledged, with Protestantism in particular.

It is common, especially among legal scholars, to lambaste the U.S. Supreme Court for its seeming inconsistencies on religion -- ruling, for example, against providing tax-supported maps for Catholic schools but in favor of tax-supported books. Yet DiIulio thinks that the Court has by and large done a credible job trying to find the moderate middle. Like most conservatives, he objects to some of the more strict separationist decisions of a Hugo Black or William Brennan. But he chides Christian rightists for their irresponsible insistence that we live under a judicial tyranny imposed by liberal secularists. The Court generally comes down with the framework established by Madison, DiIulio argues, and that, it turns out, is also roughly where the American public lies.

The point of all this is to conclude that faith-based initiatives, the policy innovation with which DiIulio is so closely associated, also represent a middle point between the extremes. If we are to remain true to the godly side of our republic, we ought to recognize that religion is both central to people's identity and a valuable resource upon which policymakers can rely to promote justice and equality. But if we are also to be true to our republican tradition, we need to ensure that any such policies contain protections against religious discrimination and do not use public funds for explicit proselytizing. That is what Bush's faith-based initiative was supposed to be about, DiIulio tells us, but, alas, zealots from both the religious right and secular left helped undermine it. The real losers were the inner-city poor, toward whom DiIulio is eloquently compassionate and for whom he has tirelessly worked. If we were only willing to be a little more moderate in our debates over religion, we could, he believes, genuinely help people in desperate need, and our failure to do so is a cause for shame.

John DiIulio is a fascinating American. A working-class kid from South Philadelphia -- also my home town -- he can hold intelligent conversations with both policy wonks and political bosses. Once associated with hard-right approaches to crime and punishment, he has learned compassion from actual experience with the poor. A Democrat who has worked for the most partisan Republican president in our history, he became the first former insider to point out how fake the president's front was and then the first to apologize for his indiscretion. A Catholic, he is considered by evangelical Protestants to be one of them. Although capable of becoming a celebrity, he has chosen to publish his thoughts not with a commercial firm but with a university press, and he will be donating all his after-tax royalties to the charities with which he has worked. At a time of all too predictable politics, he is a pleasure to read and to know. (DiIulio serves on an American Political Science Association task force I chair on "Religion and Democracy in the United States.")

I agree with the broad outlines of DiIulio's argument but disagree with the way he frames it. The Founders, I would insist, were not orthodox Christians in any recognizable sense of the term; the system they established was more republican than godly; and the blame for the failure of moderation that both DiIulio and I would like to see lies more with the right, including President Bush, than with the left.

DiIulio's presentation of James Madison leaves me confused. It is true that Madison was a Presbyterian and a student of James Witherspoon, who can properly be called a Reformed, or Calvinist, Protestant. But Madison himself cannot be described that way. John Calvin, for one thing, created a theocracy in Geneva and was a strong advocate of church-state fusion; Madison's First Amendment prohibits anything like Geneva's Consistory monitoring people's private lives, regulating their marriages, and censoring their thoughts. And Madison was hardly alone. Our first handful of presidents were deists, about as far from orthodox religion as one could be at the time and still be considered serious, and the one who was not, John Adams, was a Unitarian who rejected the Trinity, without which there cannot be orthodox Protestantism. If we are to be faithful to our Founders today, we should not be seeking a position halfway between Pat Robertson and Americans United for Separation of Church and State but something that leans more toward the latter than the former.

DiIulio's account of the role of the U.S. Supreme Court, in contrast to his discussion of the Founders, is spot on. The Court has come in for far too much abuse in its First Amendment rulings. This is difficult, if not impossible, territory, and the Court has done its honest best to find middle ground; if you are inclined not to believe me, you should read Justice Scalia's decision in Oregon v. Smith upholding a ban on religious practices. The only problem we face in this area is that if the Court did swing too far to the left in the Warren years, it is on its way to moving too far to the right with the appointments of John Roberts and Samuel Alito. Moderation and compromise are not terms likely to characterize the Court's jurisprudence in the years to come.

The heart of DiIulio's book concerns the controversy over faith-based initiatives, and his insider account is well worth reading. To some extent, we already know what took place inside the White House on this issue because DiIulio's former assistant, David Kuo, published Tempting Faith, his own version of the sheer cynicism the Bush administration showed toward its evangelical base. The key to understanding the whole controversy does not involve the idea of faith-based initiatives themselves; Bill Clinton sponsored legislation in this area called Charitable Choice, which allowed a role for religious groups in the provision of welfare, and Al Gore strongly endorsed such faith-based initiatives in the 2000 campaign. The key issue was always whether language would be included allowing discrimination and proselytizing. Key legislators, especially Sen. Joseph Lieberman, made it clear from the start that this would not happen. But this is what Bush's base wanted; for them, legislation without the right to discriminate was no legislation at all. The U.S. House ramrodded such a policy through. Talks broke down. No legislation was forthcoming. Bush therefore used an executive order to create the office that DiIulio came to occupy.

It is difficult to read any account of these controversies without attributing most of the blame for the failure of the legislation to the right. Nonetheless convinced that Bush's heart was in the right place on this issue, DiIulio presents him as someone who wanted to find compromise but lost the battle. But this book adds even more details to the devastating picture painted by Kuo, reminding us of how Bush, to thunderous applause from his base of supporters, promised them what they wanted but did not include provisions allowing religious discrimination in his executive order. "Between 1996 and 2006," DiIulio writes, "despite good intentions in both cases, neither the Clinton administration nor the Bush administration had done much to forge partnerships with faith-based groups that measurably helped people in need. The only real difference was that, after the 2000 presidential election, issues like religious hiring rights begat partisan, inside-the-beltway battles in which the charitable choice consensus was often a near-fatal casualty and the needy people whom charitable choice was supposed to help were too often forgotten." Here is where DiIulio's centrist moderation, which I so greatly admire, fails him. One side was far more responsible for the failure to build on Bill Clinton's original initiative, and it was not Clinton's.

The United States will soon have a president not named Bush (although it may again have one named Clinton). With a new president, no matter the party, the issue of faith-based initiatives will likely re-emerge. DiIulio concludes with a powerful argument to the effect that, next time around, liberals should realize that they share common ground with religious conservatives on the need to help the poor. (He even urges that liberals recognize Charles Colson, the former Watergate inmate and now dedicated Christian, as a potential ally, and I happen to think he is right.) There may be good political advantages for liberals and Democrats to do so. But they also should do it because it is the right thing to do.

When I read John DiIulio writing about the poor, I feel inadequate, not only with respect to myself, but also with the liberal tradition that means so much to me. There are liberals who work tirelessly on behalf of the poor, and they often fail to receive the credit they should. But too many do not, while there is at least one person in this country who has worked for George W. Bush whose compassion can never be doubted. If there were more liberals who shared John DiIulio's passion for justice, liberalism would be better -- and so would America.