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New faith-based director named; Land commends choice of Towey

WASHINGTON (BP)–President Bush has named a new director of one of his signature programs, the faith-based initiative, and a Southern Baptist leader who has closely monitored the effort has commended the selection.

The president introduced Jim Towey, who worked with the late Mother Teresa for more than a decade, as the new director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives. The appointment of Towey comes at a time when Bush is seeking to build congressional support for a proposal that proved highly divisive last year.

Towey, a lawyer, has worked in government and social service. He served as head of Florida’s health and social services agency under Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles. He previously had been legislative director for Republican Sen. Mark Hatfield of Oregon.

He was legal counsel for 12 years to Mother Teresa, whose longtime ministry to the needy in Calcutta, India, spread to other parts of the world. Towey lived for a year as a volunteer in her Washington, D.C., home for people with AIDS. As a result of his experience with her ministry, he founded Aging With Dignity in 1996 to promote care for people nearing the end of life.

“There’s no question it’s a tremendous appointment,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “He’s obviously got the commitment, the experience and the managerial skills — and, perhaps most importantly, the confidence of the president.”

Towey “understands there are things more important than political parties,” Bush said in introducing the father of four sons. “And one of those things more important than political parties is to help heal the nation’s soul.”

Towey fills a position vacated in August by John DiIulio, a University of Pennsylvania professor. Bush established the office and named DiIulio to head it in his second week as president in January 2001.

The new director will work to “eliminate barriers that discriminate against” faith-based and community groups and to enact legislation that “will put government squarely on the side” of such organizations, Bush said.

The initiative, which the president said is “one of the most important commitments” of his administration, faded into the background after DiIulio’s resignation and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The aftermath of those attacks has made it “obvious to everyone how essential the community and faith-based groups are to the well-being of our nation,” Bush said. “They have saved lives. They provide hope. They have helped heal the nation’s wounds.”

The president announced the formation of a new Advisory Council on Faith-based and Community Initiatives, of which Towey will be a member. John Bridgeland, the director of the new USA Freedom Corps, will chair the council. Steve Goldsmith, chairman of the Corporation of National and Community Service and five cabinet secretaries will also participate in the council.

“Mother Teresa introduced me to this joy that comes from befriending those in need and discovering their tremendous dignity,” Towey said after the president’s introduction. “You speak often of this same dignity, Mr. President, and your vision … is unleashing new armies of compassion that will change countless lives, both of those who serve and those who are served.”

Bush also said, “My job is to unify our country around common, big goals, and there is nothing more important than to help the hopeless see hope, to help the addicted see a better life, to help the collective will of our country to have a better tomorrow, [to] realize its potential.”

Bush’s faith-based legislative proposal has largely two components, one to increase private giving to charitable organizations and another to increase government support of charities, including religious ones, that provide social services.

The House of Representatives approved a measure addressing both prongs of Bush’s proposal last year, but the bill, H.R. 7, went nowhere in the Senate. There is widespread support for the effort to increase charitable donations, but the government-aid aspect has proven divisive. A portion of H.R. 7 that permits tax-exempt organizations that receive support to consider religion in hiring also has been strongly opposed.

It appears a measure to increase private giving through such proposals as allowing non-itemizing taxpayers to deduct for charitable contributions has the best hope of congressional approval.

“I don’t think there’s any way that H.R. 7 or anything like H.R. 7 will get out of the Senate,” said the ERLC’s Land, who attended the Feb. 1 White House event. It might have a chance “if it could get on the floor, but I don’t think [Senate Majority Leader Tom] Daschle will let it on the floor,” he said.

After the announcement of Towey’s selection, Land delivered a message to the president as Bush visited personally with those who attended the Roosevelt Room ceremony. Land, who has known Bush for more than a decade, told the president at least 50 people had asked him to tell Bush they were praying for him.

“I can feel it,” Bush said, Land reported. “Please tell them to keep it up. My wife and I can feel the prayers of millions of people. ”

A pool reporter from the White House press corps also related a portion of the conversation between Bush and the ERLC president that involved Land’s son, Richard.

“How’s the big boy doing,” Bush asked, according to the report.

“He’s in seminary,” was the response.

“He’s [going to] be one big preacher,” Bush said.

Bush and the younger Land came to know each other when both were in Austin, Texas. Bush was governor of the state, and Land was a student at the University of Texas, where he was a scholarship member of the football team. They would see each other once or twice a month as both worked out in the UT weight room.

The younger Land, who is 6-8 and weighs 330 pounds, is scheduled to graduate in May from Southeastern College at Wake Forest, N.C. He plans to stay on campus and work on a master of divinity degree at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.