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Bush hosts faith-based programs meeting at First Baptist Austin

AUSTIN, Texas (BP)–President-elect George W. Bush took another step toward easing strains from the presidential race, meeting with about 30 ministers and other religious leaders, many of them black, to discuss his plans to expand greatly the role of churches and charities in federal welfare programs.

At a closed meeting that lasted over an hour at the First Baptist Church here, the New York Times reported that Bush asked the ministers how his administration should proceed with what he calls “faith-based” initiatives, a catchall term for financing churches and private charities to take over government welfare functions and using tax breaks and other incentives to spur charitable donations.

Repeatedly, participants said, Bush emphasized that he knew many blacks viewed him with great skepticism, and he asked how he could reverse that and not wind up a year from now, said one person who attended, “with folks asking whether this was just smoke and mirrors.”

“People said, `Listen, there is a discrepancy now, there’s a great divide,’ and reference was made to the fact that over 90 percent of the black community did not vote for him,” said Eugene Rivers, pastor of Azusa Christian Community in Boston. “He said, `Look, there is a perception gap, and there are folks who feel they are not included. What do we need to do to correct that gap?’ ”

At one point, said Jim Wallis, a leader in Call to Renewal, an ecumenical coalition that focuses on poverty issues, one participant told Bush there “aren’t great expectations” for his administration in the inner city where she worked. Wallis said Bush acknowledged that, and Wallis said he told the president- elect, “I hope you surprise us.”

In his opening statement, Bush said he “really wants to bridge the gaps that exist among the different groups in this country,” said Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza of Houston, the president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Bush also said “he was looking for some ideas he could put in his inaugural address that could make the country realize he is sincere about bringing this country together,” Bishop Fiorenza said.

Bush did not lay out any specific programs, but people at the meeting said he indicated that the likely head of an office for initiatives he plans to create would be Stephen Goldsmith, the former mayor of Indianapolis, who was Bush’s chief domestic policy adviser during the campaign.

In addition to creating a federal Office of Faith-Based Action, Bush has said other plans include working to end regulations that prohibit religious groups from participating in federal programs; making it easier for churches, charities and other nongovernment groups to get taxpayer money to operate federal programs; and creating tax breaks to increase charitable donations.

Despite support from the ministers who attended today’s meeting, many clergy members are wary of increased government financing for religious social-service programs. They fear it will lead to government interference in their ministries, or that tax dollars will be channeled to the most politically connected ministers. And others are concerned the whole initiative amounts to government financing for proselytizing.

“There are many religious traditions in this land,” said the C. Welton Gaddy, executive director of the Interfaith Alliance, a group that opposes the religious right. How do we guarantee that minority religions have the same access that majority religions have?”

“You have a situation in which an organization could turn food or clothing or counseling or rehabilitation into a tool for proselytizing,” said Gaddy, who was not at the meeting. “And you have the government supporting that. This concerns me.”

Critics also say that such programs could lead to a violation of the separation of church and state. Supporters, however, believe that can be avoided by not limiting participation in programs to certain religions, while assuring people they can attend secular alternatives if they object to attending a program run by a religious group.

Before the meeting, Bush, who lost the black vote to Vice President Al Gore by 9 to 1, said “I’ve got a lot of work to do” to improve his standing among blacks.

Bush insisted that the session today was “not a political meeting.” He added, “I look forward to the chance of healing a nation that has been divided as a result of an election.”

Although the people invited today included some conservatives, the attendees cut across ideological lines, with a significant number closely identified with local efforts to help the urban poor.

With the exception of Bishop Fiorenza, the participants were not drawn from major denominations or national organizations. Instead, many came from local ministries, including the senior ministers of major African-American churches, like Kirbyjon Caldwell, pastor of Windsor Village United Methodist Church in Houston. Also in attendance was the Floyd Flake, the former congressman from Queens who may be considered for a cabinet- level post like education secretary.

Robert Sirico, president of Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Mich., said that throughout the discussion Bush was closely engaged with each person who spoke.

“You can see there was a real religious interest here,” Sirico said. “This is a man who has had a religious experience, who understands the influence of religion in a very dramatic way.”

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