Bush Caught on Tape - Again Says he'll use tax dollars to help religious groups oppose abortion

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Bush Caught on Tape - Again

Says he'll use tax dollars to help religious groups oppose abortion

Unaware that reporters were listening, President Bush told Catholic leaders yesterday that his new program to give tax money to religious groups will help them promote opposition to abortion.

The remarks, unintentionally broadcast over a White House public address system, contradict his earlier claim that the program "will not fund the religious activities of any group."

Bush was privately meeting with Catholic leaders to discuss his executive order creating an Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives that will distribute billions of dollars to religious groups and charities over the next 10 years. He also signed an executive order instructing government agencies to set up special departments helping religious groups get the money.

Giving churches and religious charities public money raises troubling questions about the separation of religion and government that is at the heart of American democracy. Recognizing this, Bush promised that the new office would only fund social services, such as soup kitchens and drug treatment programs, when he announced its creation.

But in his private conversation with Catholic leaders, Bush said the program is intended to "change the culture" of America in ways that will make it easier for them to oppose abortion and save "babies." That is proselytizing - trying to convert people to a particular religious belief - and clearly breaches the constitutional wall between church and state.

Bush's comments were accidentally played on an Oval Office speaker system that broadcasts the president's public remarks to reporters in another room. This conversation was not meant to be heard by the public, however, so a White House spokesman had some explaining to do when reporters questioned what Bush was saying.

The incident is similar to last September's embarrassment when candidate Bush called a New York Times reporter "a major-league asshole", not realizing he was in front of an open microphone at the time.

Yesterday, Bush promised the Catholic group he would act immediately to oppose abortion through "legislative initiatives" he didn't define, and through executive orders like the one he signed reinstating the so-called Mexico City policy. (Also known as the global gag rule, this misguided rule withholds international family planning funds from any organization that performs, supports or mentions abortion.)

Beyond that, he said, "there's a larger calling," which he described as "changing the culture of the country" and promoting anti-abortion arguments.

"We've got a cultural issue in America. We've got to change the whole way the issue is looked at," Bush said. "That's the mission. Some in the political process don't have enough patience for that, and I probably don't either."

Losing the War of Words

Funding religion as a way around the political process

Later, White House spokesman Scott McClellan tried to interpret what Bush meant. "What he's saying is what he has talked about consistently for the past several years," McClellan said. "Faith is a powerful tool for changing and saving lives. In a much broader context, it's all about changing the culture."

Bush also told the Catholic group that "the pro-life movement" has been "losing a war of words to the opposing side."

"Take the life issue," Bush said. "This issue requires a president and an administration leading our nation to understand the importance of life. This whole faith-based initiative really ties into a larger cultural issue that we're working on. It begins to affect the life issue, as well as the human dignity issue, because when you're talking about welcoming people of faith to help people who are disadvantaged and are unable to defend themselves, the logical step is also those babies."

He added that "there is a kind of a built-in prejudice against a particular position on both sides of both issues. And the language of the issues is never for life, it's always anti-somebody's right." He told the Catholic leaders that they are "vital allies" because they won't "be eroded by political correctness or whatever," according to a report in the Washington Times.

McClellan later explained that Bush believes civil dialogue is part of an effort "to look for common ground" and that the intent is "to work to reduce the number of abortions," a goal that McClellan said both sides of the debate agree on.

It's true that pro-choice advocates want to reduce the number of abortions, and that they support concrete ways of doing so, like making it easy for women to obtain contraceptives and teaching about safe sex in schools. But those who oppose abortion typically oppose such measures too. Bush certainly does: he wants to fund abstinence-only sex education that doesn't even mention contraceptives, and he's already signed the executive order that will deny safe birth control to millions of women overseas.

More than one pro-lifer has told me that it doesn't matter how many abortions there are, as long as abortion is illegal. Another abortion opponent said that making contraception available to teenagers is "a price we will not pay" to reduce the number of abortions. In fact, it seems that "abortion" really stands for promiscuity, feminism, atheism, and other problems religious conservatives see all around in American culture today.

It's fine for religious folks to be concerned about changing social and sexual mores, but it's not okay to use public money to preach their beliefs. And while it's easy to understand Bush's impatience with the political process, that is the mechanism we use to deal with social problems in America - not religious conversion.

-- Cherri (jessam6@home.com), August 16, 2001

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