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Monday, May 24, 1999

Al Gore delivering a speech on the role of faith-based organizations at the Salvation Army in Atlanta, GA on May 24, 1999

I want to talk today about a dramatic transformation in America. It’s one that you and your families are already a part of.

This transformation is a quiet one -- and a good one. It is a movement that is entirely about solutions. And it is sweeping from home to home and neighbor to neighbor, right now in America.

In spite of the cultural soul sickness we’ve confronted recently, there is a goodness in Americans that, when mobilized, is more than a match for it. Americans are still the most decent people on earth -- and are actually growing in service and in selflessness. America has the highest level of religious belief and observance of any advanced nation. Americans’ volunteer work has doubled in twenty years, even as more women -- the traditional mainstay of volunteer groups -- have moved into the workplace. Both adults and teenagers are just as likely to go to church or synagogue today as their counterparts were twenty years ago. And in many ways, our public policies have shown the face of that strong and growing commitment to decency: ever-fewer Americans tolerate bigotry and discrimination, and our journey as a society reflects that.

This hunger for goodness manifests itself in a newly vigorous grassroots movement tied to non-profit institutions, many of them faith-based and values-based organizations. A church’s soup kitchen. A synagogue’s program to help battered women. A mosque’s after-school computer center that keeps teenagers away from gangs and drugs.

It’s commonplace to say that people are turned off to politics. This transformation shows that in fact people are not turned off to politics – to organized community action; rather, they are turned off to too many of the ways they have seen Washington work.

What many people are struggling to find is the soul of politics, to use Jim Wallis’ words. They are living their politics, by deciding to solve the problems they see, and by going out into the streets of their communities and serving those left out and left behind. People are engaged in the deeply American act of not waiting for government to deal with the problems on their own doorsteps. Instead, they are casting a vote for their own wise hearts and strong hands to take care of their own.

I came here today to say this: the moment has come for Washington to catch up to the rest of America. The moment has come to use the people’s government to better help them help their neighbors.

Ordinary Americans have decided to confront the fact that our severest challenges are not just material, but spiritual. Americans know that the fundamental change we need will require not only new policies, but more importantly a change of both our hearts and our minds. If children are not taught right from wrong, they behave chaotically; if individuals don’t do what’s right by their kids, no new government programs will stanch that decay. Whether they are religious or not, most Americans are hungry for a deeper connection between politics and moral values; many would say “spiritual values.” Without values of conscience, our political life degenerates. And Americans profoundly -- rightly -- believe that politics and morality are deeply interrelated. They want to reconnect the American spirit to the body politic.

For too long, national leaders have been trapped in a dead end debate. Some on the right have said for too long that a specific set of religious values should be imposed, threatening the founders’ precious separation of church and state. In contrast, some on the left have said for too long that religious values should play no role in addressing public needs. These are false choices: hollow secularism or right-wing religion. Both positions are rigid; they are not where the new solutions lie. I believe strongly in the separation of church and state. But freedom of religion need not mean freedom from religion. There is a better way.

My wife Tipper practices her faith and sees its power through her work with homeless people who come to Christ House, in Washington, D.C. Many at Christ House are struggling with substance abuse and mental health issues -- but they often suffer from a feeling of spiritual emptiness as well. So Christ House does more than provide shelter and medical care. It creates a loving, trusting atmosphere that helps address the issues that led to homelessness in the first place. Its founder tells the story of a reporter who spent a week there, interviewing the patients. At the end of her time, she said: “What amazed me is that for all of the medical treatment, I didn’t hear anyone talking about putting on bandages, or taking medication.” Instead, the reporter said, they talk of “a much deeper type of healing.”

I have seen the transformative power of faith-based approaches through the national coalition I have led to help people move from welfare to work – the Coalition to Sustain Success.

In San Antonio I met a woman named Herlinda. She had given up on finding work, and had gone on welfare. She had so many challenges to face. English was her second language. She didn’t think she had the skills to hold a job. And she had begun to conclude that maybe she didn’t deserve one. Then she signed up for job training at the Christian Women’s Job Corps, which is part of our Coalition.

There, she met a woman who mentored her through prayer and Bible study, and she soon began to regain her self-confidence. Faith gave her a new feeling of self-worth, of purpose – something no other program, no matter how technically sophisticated, could give her. When I met her, she told me that for the first time in years, she had applied for a position at Wal-Mart. Then she looked me in the eye, and said with pride, “I know I’ll get the job.”

And she did. In fact, Herlinda was recently honored as employee of the month in her workplace. In San Francisco, I met a woman named Vicki. Because of a drug addiction, she had lost custody of her two children, lost her job, and gone on welfare. She had tried without success to beat her addiction. Then she joined a faith and values-based program that was part of our Coalition, and finally gained the inner strength to become clean. She regained custody of her children. And she has kept a full-time job. When I asked what she could do for others in the same bind, she said, “unfortunately, nothing -- unless they want to change first.” For Vicki, it was faith that finally enabled her to pry open the vise grip of drug addiction.

This better way is working spectacularly. From San Antonio to San Francisco, from Goodwill in Orlando to the Boys and Girls Club in Des Moines – I have seen the difference faith-based organizations make.

Tipper and I also began to learn about this better way at our annual “Family Reunion” policy conferences, where we saw how the power of love can reconnect fathers with children they had abandoned, and how that surrendering commitment to the father-child bond has a transforming impact on men more powerful than any program ever tried. I’ve also seen this approach used to clean up the environment by many local congregations working in their own communities, and working on national and global issues under the umbrella of the Religious Partnership for the Environment.

Leaders of the new movement of faith-based organizations call it “the politics of community.” In this new politics, citizens take local action, based on their churches, synagogues, and mosques, but reaching out to all -- to do what all great religions tell good people do: visit the prisoners, help the orphans, feed and clothe the poor. The men and women who work in faith- and values-based organizations are driven by their spiritual commitment; to serve their God, they have sustained the drug-addicted, the mentally ill, the homeless; they have trained them, educated them, cared for them, healed them. Most of all, they have done what government can never do; what it takes God’s help, sometimes, for all of us to manage; they have loved them -- loved their neighbors, no matter how beaten down, how hopeless, how despairing. And good programs and practices seem to follow, borne out of that compassionate care.

Here in Atlanta at the Salvation Army’s Adult Rehabilitation Center, I see in you the powerful role of faith in nurturing a change of consciousness. All of the men here who are recovering from substance abuse start the day with a morning devotion period. Many of them work right here during the day refinishing and reupholstering furniture, doing the work of the Salvation Army. Captain Guy Nickum, who runs the Center, says: “Our belief in God is in all of the steps of recovery.” That belief is giving new hope to many of the recovering people who are with us today.

That is why this transformation is different in many ways from what has come before. Some past national political leaders have asked us to rely on a fragile patchwork of well-intentioned volunteerism to feed the hungry and house the homeless. That approach, optimistic though it was, was not adequate for the problems too many Americans face. It left too many American children behind to suffer. If all the private foundations in America gave away all their endowments, it would cover about one year of our current national commitment to meeting social challenges. In contrast, faith- and values-based organizations show a strength that goes beyond “volunteerism.” These groups nationwide have shown a muscular commitment to facing down poverty, drug addiction, domestic violence and homelessness. And when they have worked out a partnership with government, they have created programs and organizations that have woven a resilient web of life support under the most helpless among us.

Reverend Eugene Rivers, as I read recently in an article, has been widely celebrated for helping to take back the worst neighborhoods of Boston through faith. He remembers a hardened gangster telling him: “I’m there when Johnny goes out for a loaf of bread. I’m there, you’re not. I win, you lose. It’s all about being there.” But Reverend Rivers resolved that he would be there, too. He was, and he faced down the gangs.

A second difference is that they give another kind of help than the help given in government programs, no matter how dedicated the employees. To the workers in these organizations, that client is not a number, but a child of God. Those on the front lines of our most intractable battles are surprised to discover how concrete a difference that makes. “You couldn’t function effectively without ministers in Boston,” says William J. Bratton, who was the city’s police commissioner, talking to a reporter about the clergy who saved inner-city kids from gangs.

Partly because of Reverend Rivers and his fellow faith leaders, Boston went 18 months without losing a single child to gun violence.

These workers are motivated more by service than institutional allegiance, so they try to get every penny to go to alleviating suffering rather than upholding a program for the sake of professional credentialism. Unlike bureaucracies, which can sometimes be self-perpetuating, the churches want their helping programs to work so well that they become obsolete. Traditional “helping” often gives material aid to the poor or hungry -- and that’s all. FBO outreach gives food, shelter -- but also the one-to-one caring, respect and commitment that save lives even more effectively than just a nourishing meal or a new suit of clothes.

A third difference is that this kind of activism changes the volunteer as much as the one being helped. This work, then, feeds physical hunger in the needy even as it feeds a spiritual hunger in those ordinary Americans who are showing their dedication to a better world in this way.

A fourth, most important difference is that the solutions and programs are more likely to work because they are crafted by people actually living in the neighborhood they are serving, or by people who came from that world.

Those in the movement of FBO’s, as they have put it themselves, are “waging peace.” They took responsibility to change themselves and their own homes before asking government or groups they disagreed with to change. And all the great religions teach that responsibility begins at home -- with oneself. These little acts of kindness so many Americans are building into their daily or weekly lives are not trivial; they add up to sweeping social change.

As Mother Teresa put it, “Plant the act, reap the habits. Plant the habits, reap the virtue. Plant the virtue, reap the character. Plant the character, reap the destiny.”

I am here today because I believe government should play a greater role in sustaining this quiet transformation – not by dictating solutions from above, but by supporting the effective new policies that are rising up from below.

And I believe the lesson for our nation is clear: in those specific instances where this approach can help us meet crushing social challenges that are otherwise impossible to meet – such as drug addiction and gang violence – we should explore carefully-tailored partnerships with our faith community, so we can use the approaches that are working best.

Today, I would like to propose concrete actions to clear bureaucratic hurdles out of the way of these good men and women who are helping to solve our problems. In place of these hurdles, I propose a New Partnership.

The 1996 welfare reform law contained a little-known provision called Charitable Choice. It says, simply, that states can enlist faith-based organizations to provide basic welfare services, and help move people from welfare to work.

As long as there is always a secular alternative for anyone who wants one, and as long as no one is required to participate in religious observances as a condition for receiving services, faith-based organizations can provide jobs and job training, counseling and mentoring, food and basic medical care. They can do so with public funds – and without having to alter the religious character that is so often the key to their effectiveness.

I believe we should extend this carefully tailored approach to other vital services where faith-based organizations can play a role – such as drug treatment, homelessness, and youth violence prevention.

Of course, any extension must be accompanied by clear and strict safeguards: government must never promote a particular religious view, or try to force anyone to receive faith. We must ensure that there is always a high-quality secular choice available. We must continue to prohibit direct proselytizing as part of any publicly-funded efforts. And we must establish the same clear accountability for results we would expect of anyone who does the public’s business. But we must dare to embrace faith-based approaches that advance our shared goals as Americans.

There is a reason faith-based approaches have shown special promise with challenges such as drug addiction, youth violence, and homelessness. Overcoming these problems takes something more than money or assistance – it requires an inner discipline and courage, deep within the individual. I believe that faith in itself is sometimes essential to spark a personal transformation – and to keep that person from falling back into addiction, delinquency, or dependency.

Let us put the solutions that faith-based organizations are pioneering at the very heart of our national strategy for building a better, more just nation. Many people in the faith-based organizations want their role to be not exemplary, but strategic; not to be merely a shining anecdote in a pretty story told by a politician, but to have a seat at the national table when decisions get made. Today I give you this pledge: if you elect me President, the voices of faith-based organizations will be integral to the policies set forth in my administration.

This focus on a New Partnership, which emerges from the voices of the leaders of the faith-based organizations, will invigorate civil society; it will empower faith-based and secular non-profits alike. Best of all, it will bring a whole new leadership into the political process: that of the community. We’re not just talking about new mini-programs here, but about new strategies based on the grassroots efforts which are already working, with both government and business willing to offer substantial support.

This “politics of community” will be neither government doing everything, nor the churches and charities picking up the slack when government scales back. Rather, it will mean a new era of civil society collaboration. A politics of community can be strengthened when we are not afraid to make connections between spirituality and politics.

I believe we should also encourage more private support for faith-based organizations. Right now, it is common for employees to have their charitable contributions matched by their company, up to an annual limit. Rarely are faith-based programs approved for such matches, perhaps because we are just starting to realize the role they play. Or maybe it is the allergy to faith that is such a curious factor in much of modern society. Whatever the cause of their past reluctance, I call on the corporations of America to encourage and match contributions to faith- and values-based organizations.

For too long, faith-based organizations have wrought miracles on a shoestring. With the steps I’m proposing today, they will no longer need to depend on faith alone.

America’s national identity is not shaped solely by our diverse faith traditions. But we are a people who believe that these traditions contribute to the formation of values with which we agree to live out our common lives together.

Our founders believed deeply in faith. They created the Bill of Rights in large measure to protect its free expression. One reason America is the most religious country on earth is precisely because of the church-state divide: people who are free to worship as they wish worship more freely.

Our founders also knew history. They could look back on centuries of religious war in Europe that tore nations apart. They resolved that religious war should never tear this nation apart – and the only way to do that was to allow religious freedom.

The history of the United States has proven our founders’ wisdom. They believed – and I believe – that we can protect against the establishment of religion without infringing in any way on its free exercise. That belief is at the very heart of our Constitution. And we must keep on working to make it a reality in our public life.

Let me be clear: I believe very strongly in the separation of church and state – and the careful balance that has served us well since our founding. From the beginning of our history, refugees from religious persecution have come here for safety. My mother’s family, generations ago, were Huguenots, driven from their homeland because they were Protestants in a Catholic country. Others came here because they were Catholics in a Protestant country. Still others came with completely different faith traditions. All found a new home here in America.

The separation of church and state has been good for all concerned – good for religion, good for democracy, good for those who choose not to worship at all. It is our freedom from persecution, our absolute and unassailable choice of whether to and how to worship, that keeps religion strong.

In our founders’ day, the greatest need was to protect believers of one faith from religious coercion by others. Today, we also need to ensure that believers of all faiths are free to engage in national dialogue and community action -- without feeling that they must hide their religious beliefs.

Grassroots change is now driving the best changes in our shrinking world. The Berlin wall fell, South Africa began its healing, Northern Ireland is laying down its arms. These great changes did not come about primarily because of governments or individual world leaders; but because of lasting change in heart after heart of ordinary people willing to take the leap of faith of seeing the enemy as neighbor, as family.

Ordinary Americans involved with faith-based organizations have all done something just as extraordinary: they each decided that one person can make a difference. The Jewish tradition says, if you save one life, it is as if you have saved a whole world.

Jesus said that the Kingdom of God is within us. I believe that means in part that in our hearts, we already know the way it is supposed to be; we already know what’s right. The way it is supposed to be, we already know, has not even one child crying from hunger. Not one old person left uncared-for. We know the way it is supposed to be -- and those at the forefront of the faith- and values-based organizations movement have decided to be true day after day to the way it is supposed to be.

For, after all, what are peace and prosperity really for? Prosperity is a blessing, and we are grateful for it. But there is a hunger that goes even deeper than the hunger for material security. Prosperity can build a million bigger garages; but it can also create institutions in which the human spirit can flourish.

Americans are creating those now in their own communities. Through their efforts we are becoming an America which is not just better off but better -- where we are serving as I believe God meant us to -- as a light to this ever-shrinking world.



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