Breaking the gridlock to serve nation’s needy

Sunday, January 20, 2002

Proponents of new initiatives to tackle our nation’s social problems got some good news on Jan. 15 — which was, appropriately enough, Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.

A group of 33 Americans from across the political and religious spectrum issued a report that may finally break the gridlock in Washington over President Bush’s “faith-based initiative.”

Republicans and Democrats don’t disagree about the urgent need to act. People on both sides of the aisle are painfully aware that millions of Americans — including more than 12 million children — live in poverty. And millions of our fellow citizens suffer from the consequences of such social ills as family instability, substance abuse, lack of job skills, and racial discrimination.

But efforts to rally the “armies of compassion” to fight these problems with new partnerships among government, faith communities, civic and community groups, businesses and philanthropic organizations have stalled on Capital Hill largely over deep differences about the constitutionality of government funding for faith-based programs.

Enter Sen. Rick Santorum, Republican of Pennsylvania, who was determined to end the impasse. Last summer he asked former Sen. Harris Wofford — the Democrat he defeated in 1994 — to chair a broadly diverse “Working Group” charged with finding common ground. Search for Common Ground, an organization with a proven track record of brokering consensus, coordinated the effort.

“Diverse” doesn’t begin to describe the group. Participants came from groups ranging from Evangelicals for Social Action and the Southern Baptist Convention to Americans United for Separation of Church and State and People for the American Way. (Full disclosure: I was one of the 33.)

After seven months of intense — but civil — discussion, the group found common ground on 29 recommendations. Of course, nobody got everything they wanted. But the areas of agreement turned out to be more significant than even the most optimistic predictions.

Consensus was reached, for example, on the need for new tax incentives to encourage individual and corporate charitable giving (including allowing non-itemizers to deduct charitable contributions). The group also agreed that religious groups seeking government funds should form separate nonprofit organizations for purposes of accountability.

The report calls for a variety of other actions that would increase the capacity of faith-based and community programs such as increasing technical assistance to smaller grass-roots organizations and expanding AmeriCorps programs in order to supplement the staff of groups providing social services. (A full list of the recommendations may be found at

Did we agree on everything? Of course not. There’s little common ground on the constitutionality of direct funding to religious groups or on the question of discrimination in hiring on the basis of religion in programs that receive government funds.

But here’s the message to Congress and the White House: Let’s act now on what we can agree on — and avoid the bitter fights and lawsuits. There’s no question that implementing these 29 recommendations would dramatically advance the efforts of faith-based and community organizations to help those most in need.

We can do this. And we must.

The report reminds us of the call from Martin Luther King Jr. nearly 40 years ago on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial:

“We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God’s children.”