SOUTH BEND, Ind.—Invoking the words and works of President Lyndon Johnson and Mother Teresa, President Bush on Sunday answered critics of his so-called faith-based initiative by declaring that churches and charitable organizations represent the third stage in the government's decades-long effort to eliminate poverty.
Speaking to graduates at the University of Notre Dame's commencement exercises, Bush delivered perhaps his most forceful message on behalf of a controversial proposal that has divided Congress and the nation.
Bush's faith-based initiative, in which the government would give financial support to churches, charities and community groups to provide social services, emerged during the presidential campaign but has been overshadowed recently by the debates over tax cuts, the economy and energy policy. Bush has periodically referred to his proposal, but this 22-minute speech devoted entirely to the plan marked the first concerted effort by the White House to put the topic at center stage.
More than 30 years after Johnson launched the War on Poverty as part of his Great Society and five years after Congress enacted welfare reform, Bush argued that the results of those programs prove there are limits to government's ability to solve nagging social problems. Much of today's poverty, Bush said, "has more to do with troubled lives than a troubled economy."
"When poverty is considered hopeless, America is condemned to permanent social division, becoming a nation of caste and class, divided by fences and gates and guards," Bush told the graduates who assembled at Notre Dame's Joyce Center. "Our task is clear and difficult: We must build our country's unity by extending our country's blessings."
The proposal, a pillar of his legislative agenda, has received mixed reviews. Ideological battle lines have formed in Congress, separating those who advocate a strong role for the government versus those who want to minimize the role of government.
The call for Americans to be more charitable, critics say, comes as the White House is pushing a tax cut they say is overwhelmingly aimed at benefiting the rich. At the heart of the debate, though, is a dispute over separation of church and state and the potential implications of breaching that wall.
Poll shows support
An opinion poll released last month by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press indicated that Americans support the idea of faith-based groups receiving government funding to provide social services.
However, in practice, Americans have concerns about preserving the separation of church and state. Sixty-eight percent of respondents said they worry that faith-based initiatives might lead to too much government involvement with religious organizations. And 60 percent said they were concerned that religious groups would proselytize among recipients of social services, the Pew Center poll said.
Bush, who received a rousing welcome Sunday from a crowd of about 2,500 graduates, their relatives and faculty, answered some of his critics by noting that government already provides money to Catholic Charities, religious-supported colleges, and for child-care vouchers and to religious hospitals through Medicaid and Medicare payments. He said critics should ask themselves whether these efforts should be banned.
Boost for housing subsidy
"Government has an important role. It will never be replaced by charities," said Bush, clad in a blue graduate's robe. To bolster his point, the president proposed tripling a low-income housing subsidy program administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
But the government is not the only answer, Bush said. "Government should never fund the teaching of faith, but it should support the good works of the faithful," he said.
"The answer for an abandoned child is not a job requirement--it is the loving presence of a mentor. The answer to addiction is not a demand for self-sufficiency--it is personal support on the hard road to recovery," Bush said.
Recalling the words of Mother Teresa, who became legendary for her charitable work in India, Bush said, "What the poor often needed--even more than shelter and food, though these are desperately needed as well--is to be wanted."
The return of the faith-based initiative as a political talking point represents a significant departure from the more recent rhetoric of tax cuts and energy proposals, but the topic and the venue are an easy fit.
Notre Dame arguably is the best-known Catholic-supported university in the nation. Bush, who during the presidential campaign trailed Democratic Vice President Al Gore among Roman Catholics, has tried in recent weeks to build support within the official Catholic community.
According to exit polling data, Gore defeated Bush among Catholic voters, 50 percent to 47 percent. Catholics represent 1 in 4 adults in the U.S., according to the Gallup Organization, and Bush has been working that voting bloc since angering many Catholics by appearing at Bob Jones University during the presidential campaign.
During a trip last week to Pennsylvania to promote his gun-control proposal, Bush met privately with Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, the archbishop of Philadelphia. He also has met privately with Catholic officials in other cities. The recent Pew poll indicated that three-quarters of Catholics favor government funding of faith-based programs.
However, the poll said Catholics would prefer to see secular groups handle teen mentoring and pregnancy counseling, and they also prefer that government agencies handle health care, literacy and job training.
While the president called on Americans to do more to fight the problems of drug addiction, illiteracy and mental illness, saying, "There is no great society which is not a caring society," he added that corporations also need to do more.
Pointing to a proposal that would allow all taxpayers to deduct their charitable contributions, Bush said "everyone in America, whether they are well-off or not, should have the same incentive and reward for giving."
`Give more, give better'
Bush said faith-based organizations receive only a "tiny percentage" of overall corporate giving. He said 6 of the 10 largest corporate givers rule out or restrict donations to faith-based groups, "regardless of their effectiveness."
"The federal government will not discriminate against faith-based organizations. And neither should corporate America. ... Corporate America needs to give more and give better," Bush said.
Bush was awarded an honorary doctor of laws degree by Notre Dame's president, Rev. Edward Malloy. He is the seventh U.S. president to be awarded an honorary degree by Notre Dame, and the fifth president to deliver a commencement address there. His father, President George Bush, spoke here in 1992. President Ronald Reagan spoke at graduation exercises here in 1981, as did President Jimmy Carter in 1977 and President Dwight Eisenhower in 1960.