God is in the church-state details

Vice President Al Gore has faith in the power of faith, as long as faith-based groups that take government money are willing to forgo asking people to embrace any particular faith.

Hopefully, details of this generic, non-sectarian, yet life-changing brand of faith -- faith in faith itself -- will emerge later in the race for the White House.

Meanwhile, Texas Gov. George W. Bush wants government agencies to be free to financially support all kinds of faith-based groups, without discriminating - this is a quote -- against "Methodists or Mormons or Muslims, or good people of no faith at all." Think about that for a minute. Somewhere or another, Bush has found some faith-based ministries that are led by faithful agnostics, and good ones at that.

The GOP superstar clearly has some church-state details to work out, including a few legislative proposals that have a prayer of surviving a test in the U.S. Supreme Court.

It's a sign of the times that so many politicos are trying to find a legal way to breathe spiritual power into the body politic.

"Whether they are religious or not, most Americans are hungry for a deeper connection between politics and moral values; many would say 'spiritual values,' " said Gore, in the sermon that opened this latest round of church-state negotiations.

Trouble is, no one has found a way to harness the power of faith without letting religious believers share their faith, including the messy details. In other words, it's hard to use government funds to light revival fires in human hearts without giving other people heartburn. The vice president knows this because he is a "moderate" Southern Baptist, a species of Baptist that has faithfully defended a high wall between church and state.

Nevertheless, Gore has boldly admitted that faith-based groups have a unique ability to change lives, especially when dealing with thorny issues such as drug addiction, homelessness, youth violence and the rehabilitation of criminals. These groups offer more than money and moral advice.

"I believe that faith in itself is sometimes essential to spark a personal transformation," he said.

Yet hearts are rarely set aflame by the kind of vague faith that passes muster with lawyers and legislators. It sounds like the vice president wants faith-based groups to be able to use the power of faith, as long as they preach a nonjudgmental, toothless faith that makes few, if any, claims of authority in this life or any life to come.

Gore has, for example, stressed that faith-based groups must not require participants to attend "religious observances." Above all, those who seek government funds must avoid the appearance of proselytizing. In other words, these ministries must allow participants to opt out of the very parts of their programs -- worship services, prayer meetings, Bible studies, accountability groups -- that focus on conversion and on the transformation of hearts. These ministers are supposed to help sinners, but they can't preach to sinners, pray with sinners or ask them to repent of their sins.

Bush has been using remarkably similar language, while simultaneously seeking to please pluralists and court religious conservatives.

Prison Fellowship, Teen Challenge and other faith-based ministries are united by a "belief that no one is finally a failure or a victim, because everyone is the child of a loving and merciful God - a God who counts our tears and lifts our heads," said Bush. "The goal of these faith-based groups is not just to provide services, it is to change lives. And lives are changed."

While Gore is vague about how faith can be expressed in programs involving public funds, Bush is being vague about where the money would come from to pay the bills. He has, in this era of projected budget surpluses, suggested offering new tax incentives to promote a wave of giving to charities and religious ministries.

Bush has stressed that his administration "will never ask an organization to compromise its core values and spiritual mission to get the help it needs." He has not addressed how this would effect worship, religious education and evangelism.

These questions will not go away. As the old saying goes: God is in the details.