Lieberman takes faith-based leap

It's the question haunting the U.S. Capitol: Does changing lives have anything to do with saving souls?

If the answer is "yes," then the Beltway powers that be will have trouble sharing tax dollars with faith-based charities. Truth is, America is packed with groups that offer radically different maps describing how souls get to heaven or hell.

Many of these true believers don't like each other much and there are swarms of secularists who distrust all of them. If the U.S. government starts writing checks to the God squad -- better make that the squads of the gods -- then things will get real tense, real quick.

So be it, says Sen. Joe Lieberman. This tension could be good for America.

"Too often, people assume faith-based initiatives inevitably mean entanglement, establishment and ultimately theocracy," he said, in a recent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. "That need not be the case. We are not calling for ... government endorsement of any one religion, or government favoritism for religious groups over non-religious groups." The goal, he said, is ending "favoritism of non-religious over religious groups."

But how many Americans who have yearned for a revival of faith in the public square will say "Amen!" when their tax dollars flow into the budgets of controversial religious groups? Will the religious right tolerate pluralism?

As the saying goes: Be careful what you pray for, because you may get it. Catholics will build new halfway houses, but so will Scientologists. Southern Baptists will operate counseling programs on teen sex, but so will the Unification Church. Jewish groups will open centers for the elderly, but so will the Nation of Islam.

The challenge, said Lieberman, will be to craft laws that judge faith-based programs on their deeds, not the doctrines that inspire them. It might help to assume that religious people have the same rights as non-religious people. They should be judged according to their works, not their words.

"If a non-religious group seeking federal aid meets the program criteria, produces proven results, and does not violate civil rights or other laws, it will not matter that they may have unconventional views on unrelated issues," he said. "Shouldn't the same standard apply to programs run by religious groups as well?

"In fact, it would in my view be problematic on First Amendment grounds to discriminate against faith-based groups for their particular beliefs."

It was easy to find a larger agenda in this speech, especially after Lieberman's historic role as the first Jew to receive a major-party nomination to be vice president. The Washington Post bluntly noted that this step toward supporting President Bush's faith-based initiative has placed him "in a more conservative position than many other Democrats -- especially many of those considering a bid for the presidency."

Lieberman even said that evangelistic groups should even be allowed to compete for social service grants, as long as the government money is not directly used to fund campaigns to win converts.

This is where the fire will fall, if and when Lieberman and other political progressives dare to support legislation that pours government funds into aggressively faith-based programs. Combat will immediately commence between armies of lawyers, clergy and politicians focusing on the meaning of words such as "sin," "repentance" and "evangelism."

After all, some faith groups insist that all paths to God are right and anyone who says otherwise is wrong. Others want the freedom to proclaim that only their faith knows the way to heaven. These days, one man's "evangelism" is another man's "proselytizing," and one man's "proselytizing" is another's "hate crime." Will the religious left tolerate free speech?

Hopefully, said Lieberman, disagreements over religious words will not prevent new opportunities for people of faith to change more lives through their good works.

"If the proper protections are in place," he said, "and the money can't be used for proselytizing, and there are secular alternatives for beneficiaries to opt to, and no one is coerced, what in the end is the harm? Does society have more to fear from a rehabilitated drug addict who has broken his habit through a faith-based treatment than the untreated, unrehabilitated drug addict?"