President Bush's ambitious plan to expand federal aid to faith-based programs appears to be gaining broad support across religious and political lines.
But enthusiasm for the general idea of cooperation between government and religious groups that provide social services is one thing. Implementing the idea without dividing Americans or violating the First Amendment is quite another.
Here's the heart of the problem: Under the First Amendment, religious groups receiving federal aid can't use the money for proselytizing or worship activities. But for many people of faith, the religious message is inseparable from the delivery of services. In fact, they believe that it is precisely the religious dimension of their work that makes the work effective.
The president insists that he doesn't want the government to fund religious activities. But at the same time, he doesn't want the religious communities to abandon their religious message as a price for funding. It's not clear yet where and how Bush intends to draw the First Amendment line.
Many religious leaders are nervous that the government may resolve this tension through the imposition of restrictions and regulations. They understand that taking public money imposes certain obligations, but they don't want to make a Faustian bargain that trades religious liberty for financial support.
Will Bush allay these fears? He's made a good start with the appointment of University of Pennsylvania professor John DiIulio to head the White House office that will promote inclusion of religious groups in federal funding of social-service programs.
Although he is a passionate advocate of faith-based programs, DiIulio has a reputation for taking a measured and thoughtful approach to the implementation of "charitable choice." Among other things, he focuses on the importance of funding programs that actually work.
If anyone can craft a workable arrangement that protects the integrity of religious groups while establishing standards of accountability, DiIulio can.
Of course, "providers" are not the only ones who need religious-liberty protection when federal dollars flow to religious groups. Those receiving services must also have their rights guarded. For example, if someone in need objects to the religious nature of a social-service sponsor, the government should ensure that a secular alternative is available.
Few Americans question the urgent need for new partnerships to address our pressing social problems. And most of us appreciate the vital role faith communities play in helping those most in need.
But before we rush into a new arrangement, let's keep in mind the benefits of the old one.
Thanks to the First Amendment, religions in America are effective in the struggle for social justice precisely because they are free from governmental interference or control.
And religions thrive in our nation because they are supported by voluntary contributions and willing hearts.
That's why any and all partnerships between government and religion must take great care to uphold this extraordinary experiment in religious vitality and freedom.