SOUTH BEND, Ind. — President George W. Bush urged Americans to “revive the spirit of citizenship” by combating poverty through organizations based on faith.
Speaking to 3,000 Notre Dame graduates and their families and friends, President Bush called service organizations with a spiritual dimension essential in reaching needy individuals.
“Much of today's poverty has more to do with troubled lives than a troubled economy,” Bush said May 20. “And often when a life is broken, it can only be restored by another caring, concerned human being.”
Bush emphasized that compassion was a moral imperative.
“Jewish prophets and Catholic teaching both speak of God's special concern for the poor,” said Bush. “This is perhaps the most radical teaching of faith that the value of life is not contingent on wealth or strength or skill, that value is a reflection of God's image.”
Bush announced at the school's commencement two additional policies, focusing on home ownership and drug addiction, to his faith-based initiatives. He also called on corporations not to discriminate against faith-based organizations simply because they have a religious character.
The president defended his program against critics who have said it would violate the constitutional protections against the establishment of religion.
“Public money already goes to groups like The Center for the Homeless and, on a larger scale, to Catholic Charities. Do the critics really want to cut them off?” the president asked. “Government loans send countless students to religious colleges. Should this be banned? Of course not.”
Before the president's address, protesters gathered outside the auditorium charging that some of Bush's policies contradict the Catholic Church's teachings.
“It's a protest against George Bush's anti-labor policies, his policies against the poor, and the death penalty,” said John Shalanski, of Conyngham, Pa., who had entered the auditorium to watch his son, John, graduate. “A Catholic institution doesn't have to bring in someone that acts contrary to Catholic social teaching.”
But junior Catherine Totten of Pittsburgh said that the small band of protestors were wrong.
“Overall, Bush's policies are closer to the Church's than Gore's — and as far as abortion, he's definitely closest to the Church's teachings,” Totten said.
But Bush left abortion and the death penalty largely unmentioned in his remarks, focusing instead on his plan to fight poverty through community-based organizations, including religious ones.
Princeton professor Robert George praised the remarks.
“Bush made clear that he is not backing away from his faith-based initiative, despite the criticism of some, not all, evangelical leaders and many libertarians,” said George.
‘John Paul II’ Republican
The overall theme should be appealing to those Catholics that voted for Gore, George added.
Bush's vision is “government that, while limited, is active within its proper sphere to support families, churches, and other institutions of civil society who bear primary responsibility for transmitting culture and character and meeting social needs,” George said. “What Bush is, in effect, saying is that ‘I am a John Paul II Republican — pro-life, pro-family, pro-poor,’” said George.
But critics said the speech didn't address nagging concerns that the federal government will end up promoting certain churches by subsidizing their benefits.
“Churches that get these grants — for job training or child care — will grow more,” said Ramesh Ponnuru, senior editor of National Review magazine.
Even worse, he said, churches might alter their character to attract government aid.
Asked Ponnuru, “Should the church's decisions be significantly affected by federal programs?”
Chuck Donovan, vice-president of the Family Research Council, agreed with Ponnuru that the direct grants presented a problem, but overall he praised Bush's remarks.
“This is a comprehensive defense of the faith-based initiatives,” Donovan said. “It's a welcome development from our view.”
Donovan said that the dispute over the grants shouldn't sink other elements of the initiative, such as a proposal to allow all taxpayers to deduct their charitable contributions. “We certainly think that the tax elements shouldn't generate any controversy at all.”
Notre Dame, a Catholic university in the Midwest with a national reputation, has long been a coveted presidential speaking engagement — seven presidents going back to Franklin Roosevelt have addressed the campus.
Donovan, an alumnus of Notre Dame, said that addressing the university is a great way for a president to define issues morally.
“Reagan used his  speech to set a moral tone on foreign policy and Bush has used his speech to set a moral tone on domestic policy,” said Donovan.
Another political observer said Notre Dame is an ideal setting for announcing grand ideas.
“When a president speaks there, he consciously and subliminally invokes the greatness of the institution, from scholarship to religion to Knute Rockne,” said Dr. Larry J. Sabato, director of government studies at the University of Virginia.
And speaking at a Catholic university in the Midwest could yield political dividends.
“Bush came close to splitting the Catholic vote with Gore in 2000; by contrast, Bob Dole received only 37% of Catholics in November 1996,” noted Sabato. “If Bush is to win reelection in 2004 he must strengthen his position with two groups above all: Catholics and Hispanics.”
Joshua Mercer writes from Washington, D.C.