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Faith-based initiative needs fresh start

President Bush's faith-based initiative is in deep trouble because it lacks a constituency committed to its success, and because every move the administration makes to appease the idea's opponents weakens support from likely allies.

It is ironic that an idea Bush used so well in his campaign is drawing assaults from left to right. In the campaign, religious conservatives warmed to Bush's arguments that programs rooted in faith could fight poverty by changing hearts. And moderate voters appreciated a Republican who insisted he wanted to promote compassion and not just tax cuts.

But once Bush got to the White House, tax cuts took first, second and third place. Compassion took a back seat. Because Bush did not propose any serious increases in spending to help the poor _ in fact, his budget included some cutbacks _ the faith-based initiative looked to its critics like a cover for inaction. In this and other ways, the president has cast himself as an enemy of his own credibility, even though administration officials are convincing when they speak of Bush's genuine commitment to the faith-based idea.

He did not, for example, insist that his tax cut package allow those who file the short income tax form to be able to deduct their charitable contributions. This idea, a Bush campaign promise, had nearly universal support.

By delaying action on this tax break, Bush sent a signal: It was more important to repeal the inheritance tax for large fortunes and to cut the top income tax rates on the wealthy than to mobilize those "armies of compassion" he spoke about with such feeling during the campaign.

The curious thing about the faith-based initiative is that if it worked well, it would almost certainly direct money to neighborhoods and religious institutions far outside the Republican base. That's part of Bush's political problem.

A 1998 survey of more than 1,200 congregations by Mark Chaves of the University of Arizona found that moderate and liberal congregations were more likely to express interest in applying for government money under existing "charitable choice" programs than conservative congregations. Predominantly African-American congregations were far more likely to seek such funds than predominantly white congregations.

It's thus not in the least surprising that many white, conservative religious leaders have been less than ecstatic about the Bush initiative. Many of them never wanted the government money Bush would put on the table. African-Americans, potentially the natural constituency for this idea, are split. Some black church leaders have endorsed Bush's plan. But many in the African-American community _ as witnessed by the recent NAACP meeting _ are so mistrustful of the administration that they are unwilling to make common cause with it, even if its faith-based plan might help black churches.

And every time the administration makes concessions, it seems to lose as much as it wins. Recent amendments to the House bill embodying Bush's idea were designed to reassure liberals that the administration doesn't want government money to support explicitly religious activities. But those very concessions fed conservative fears that if faith-based groups received government funds, their religious character could be threatened.

It's a shame things are working out this way because Bush was right in spotting the potential for new partnerships between government and voluntary groups, including congregations. But getting such a plan passed required trust across party lines. Some of that trust was squandered by the administration's early turns to the right.

If anything is to come of this, the administration needs to start over. It should pursue a serious dialogue with Democrats, especially Sen. Joe Lieberman. He shares some of the constitutional worries of his Democratic colleagues but has sympathy for Bush's general idea.

And if religious congregations were required to set up separate tax-exempt organizations to receive government money _ and were provided the technical support to help them do so _ many of the constitutional objections to the Bush plan would melt away.

There are conservatives who insist this step is unnecessary and might further compromise the spiritual character of religious charities. But by easing the fears of those who worry about too much church-state entanglement, it just might allow the armies of compassion to march forward.

E.J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.

Washington Post Writers Group