Bush intended his Notre Dame speech to have special significance for his presidency, and it did. The speech turned out to be nothing less than a re-launching of his faith-based initiative with the addition of historical gravitas. In addition to constituting the centerpiece of Bush’s compassionate conservatism, the faith–based initiative has modulated into the new president’s version of President Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty.”
The speech put the faith-based initiative as the third stage of the war on poverty that began with Johnson’s “Great Society” of the 1960s, followed by the recognition and correction of welfare dependency during the Clinton administration.
His speech succeeded in tapping the wellspring of Catholic pride and the reservoir of Catholic social teaching. Bush’s heartfelt rally cry for armies of compassion to help the needy was well received by cheering Notre Dame students and parents. None of Yale’s bad manners intruded upon the ceremonies in South Bend.
For the past six weeks, critics religious and secular, conservative and liberal have been finding fault with the idea of financing religiously-affiliated social services with public funds. Some are worried about the impact of the government on religious identity, others about the prospect of government funding proselytization.
To the Catholic critics of his program, Bush asked if they wanted the present funding to end: “Public money already goes to groups like the Center for the Homeless and, on a larger scale, Catholic Charities,” he explained. “Do the critics really want to cut them off? … Government loans send countless students to religious colleges. Should that be banned? Of course not.”
In his speech, Bush emphasized that his initiative only expands upon what is already the law for welfare programs, namely, the principle of charitable choice. This means that government agencies cannot discriminate against faith-based institutions when making their grant decisions.
Some critics have suggested, rather fantastically, that Bush’s intent is to create enmity among competing religious factors. The simple truth is that he recognizes both the benefits of personal faith and the proper limits of government in respect to those who believe: “Government should never fund the teaching of faith, but it should support the good works of the faithful.” Government support is intended to extend the range of those good works rather than undercut the convictions that produce them.
It was clear, even to the most hostile spectator, that the 2001 graduates of Notre Dame cheered both the president and his message. There’s no doubt in my mind that their Notre Dame education had disposed them to join the “armies of compassion” that Bush considers the solution to poverty and need.
Bush introduced himself at the commencement with the quip, “My brother, Jeb, may be the Catholic in the family – but between us, I’m the only Domer.” It’s to his credit that he may well have convinced many in the Notre Dame audience of precisely that.