Church groups must join war on poverty, Bush says

The New York Times

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — President Bush used a commencement address at the University of Notre Dame on Sunday to cast the involvement of religious institutions in federally financed social work as the next crucial wave in a "war on poverty" that President Lyndon Johnson declared more than three decades ago.

In sweeping language, Bush said that government had done the right thing in the 1960s by expanding services to poor Americans and the right thing in the 1990s by putting limits on such assistance. Now, he said, it was time for government to act as a catalyst for the private sector — to encourage individuals and groups, including religious ones, to address the needs of those who are struggling.

"The war on poverty established a federal commitment to the poor," Bush said. "The welfare reform legislation of 1996 made that commitment more effective. For the task ahead, we must move to the third stage of combating poverty in America. Our society must enlist, equip and empower idealistic Americans in the works of compassion that only they can provide."

Bush praised not only Johnson, a Democrat, but also President Bill Clinton, another Democrat, giving Clinton credit for signing the 1996 welfare reform legislation, versions of which Clinton had previously vetoed.

His speech was the president’s most detailed defense to date of his desire to let religious groups receive more federal money. He noted that six of the 10 largest corporate givers in the country forbid or restrict donations to religious groups and he urged them not to do so.

He summarized his approach by saying that government "must be active enough to fund services for the poor and humble enough to let good people in local communities provide those services."

Civil libertarians and some religious leaders charge that Bush is dangerously blurring the boundary between church and state, and the legislation associated with Bush’s efforts is plodding through Congress. With his remarks Sunday, Bush was trying to give it a momentum it has yet to gather.

In his speech to 2,500 graduates Sunday, Bush also aggressively courted Roman Catholics, a bloc of swing voters who make up about a quarter of the electorate and narrowly favored former Vice President Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election.

Bush, who is Methodist, mentioned that his brother, Jeb, the Florida governor, is Catholic. Notre Dame is a Catholic institution.

During his presidential campaign last year, Bush offended many Catholics by giving a speech at Bob Jones University in South Carolina, a conservative school with a history of anti-Catholic bias. He later apologized.

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