The president, the cross and the cookie jar
by Molly Ivins

AUSTIN -- Welcome to George W. Bush's world of fuzzy policy thinking.
If you find yourself confused, befuddled or confounded by his recent proposals,
don't worry about a thing. You understand them perfectly.
They just don't make much sense.

Let me see if I can help with some of your questions:

What, you wonder, does drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge have
to do with solving California's energy crisis? Absolutely nothing, so don't waste time
trying to find the connection. Less than 1 percent of California's electricity comes from oil.

Will allowing power plants in California to pollute more help solve the energy crisis there?
No, Bush is just misinformed on that point, according to environmentalists,
California state officials and energy industry spokesmen.

Is there anything that the president can do about the California crisis?
Yes, he might impose a temporary cap on wholesale electricity prices, but he has
already announced that he will not, thus foreclosing (if nothing else) a useful threat.

Will, you ask, giving a huge tax cut to the wealthiest people in the
country help prevent a recession? No. Isn't this the same tax cut Bush
tried to sell us during the campaign on the grounds that the economy was
so good we needed a tax cut? Yes.

And then, of course, there is one of Bush's faves: Let's use the churches to provide
social services. (In W.'s policy world, churches are always 'faith-based institutions.'
The words 'church' and 'religious' are never used.)

That is not, actually, a totally terrible idea, except that it's
unconstitutional and guaranteed to get screwed up in the execution.
We've already tried it here in the National Laboratory for Bad
Government -- aka Texas -- and that's what we learned.

Bush's "faith-based" proposal includes a series of tax changes to
encourage charitable giving to religious and other community
organizations. This is a good idea, but isn't it at cross purposes with
his other proposal to eliminate the estate tax, which now provides a
major incentive to recycle money into the nonprofit sector?

Yes, indeed, these two policies will cancel each other out, except the
nonprofit sector will lose more by repeal of the estate tax than it will
gain by the other tax changes. In other words, the net effect of Bush's
proposals moves in the opposite direction from that which he says he
wants. You will find that this often happens with Bush. It could be fuzzy math.

Bush is especially pushing religious programs that work at
rehabilitating inmates on the grounds that it will encourage such
splendid programs as Chuck Colson's Prison Fellowship. What is believed
to be the largest religious program for prisoners? The Nation of Islam,
headed by Louis Farrakhan, the noted loony and racist.

This is why the "faith-based" proposal does not work. It's because the
government has to keep deciding what's legitimate religion and what's not.

Trying to keep money given to religious organizations from being used
for proselytizing is hopeless; money is fungible, a wonderful word
meaning 'interchangeable.' If you give money to a church for one
purpose, that in turn helps fund the church's other purposes since,
obviously, it has more money.

Those of you who know "Christians afire" -- those who cannot stop
witnessing -- will not be surprised to learn that they will, in all good
faith, set up, say, an employment training program based on the premise
that once you have been born again, you're automatically more
employable. One state-supported program in Brenham used to meet two
nights a week, one for Bible study and the other for job skills.

I'm sorry to say this, but anyone who reads the newspapers regularly and
notices the number of religious figures accused of child molestation and
other abuses will not be surprised to learn that religious social
service programs are like other social programs: Some are good, and some
are not. Pretending that they are all somehow superior to state social
services doesn't help anything.

Religious conservatives are correct to question this Bush program. The
government will inevitably have to draw lines about what is acceptable
and what is not, what is preaching and what is not.

As that great orator, the late Texas state Rep. Billy Williamson of Tyler,
once declared during a debate over state aid to Baptist-sponsored Baylor:
"Yew CAAAAAAAN'T trade the cross for the 'cookie jar!"'

And this is the policy record that has been pronounced a triumph by the
Washington press corps.

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