The President at Notre Dame

Despite the early media coverage, we haven't heard much about President Bush's plan for faith-based initiatives the last few weeks. Due to opposition from secular liberals and some religious conservatives, many in the media wondered aloud if the White House had perhaps lost its enthusiasm for the plan. Well, in his commencement speech at Notre Dame Sunday, the President told his audience that reports of the initiatives' demise were, in the words of Mark Twain, "greatly exaggerated." In his speech, the President told the 2,500 graduates at Notre Dame that government must "do more to take the side of charities and community healers, and support their work." Not out of any desire to advance a particular religion, or religion in general, but because these groups have a vital role to play. Bush reminded the graduates that "America has a long tradition of accommodating and encouraging religious institutions when they pursue public goals." And he told them that faith-based initiatives are a continuation of that tradition -- of Americans coming together "to confront some urgent problems." The faith-based efforts are the "third stage in fighting poverty in America," said Bush. The first was Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society." The second was the Welfare Reform bill of 1996, which reduced caseloads by requiring people to work in exchange for benefits. We're now in the third stage, he said, where "the easy cases have already left the welfare rolls; [and] the hardest problems remain." So, the President said, "we cannot sit and watch, leaving them to their own struggles and their own fate." But helping the "hard cases" requires recognizing something that the social services establishment either can't or won't acknowledge. As the President noted, much of today's poverty "has more to do with troubled lives than a troubled economy." Which is why faith-based groups must be involved. The hardest cases require a commitment and compassion that, while not exclusive to people of faith, is more likely to be found among them. What's more, the kind of help provided by these groups is on a "small and human scale," the President said. And that works best. That's why the President told the Class of 2001 that "our society must enlist, equip and empower idealistic Americans in works of compassion that only they can provide." He didn't only provide a rational for faith-based programs; he also answered some of their critics. He told those concerned about government support of religion to "take a look around them." Should students be banned from using government-supported student loans at Catholic universities like Notre Dame? Should Catholic hospitals be banned from accepting Medicare or Medicaid patients? After Sunday's speech, it's clear that faith-based initiatives are still a priority with this president. But the speech, eloquent and moving in places, also reminds us of why America needs the plan to work. If we're serious about helping people with troubled lives and not simply trotting out the latest abstract theories, then we need to support those who are committed to helping them. And we need more religious influence in public life -- something that this president understands. And in the final analysis, these initiatives are important -- because they are going to tell us whether American compassion is dead or reports of its demise have been greatly exaggerated. For further reference: Fournier, Ron. "Bush Addresses Poverty Solutions." Reuters; Associated Press. 20 May 2001.


Chuck Colson



  • Facebook Icon in Gold
  • Twitter Icon in Gold
  • LinkedIn Icon in Gold

Sign up for the Daily Commentary