Richard Reeves

This Administration Is Doing God's Work

WASHINGTON -- One of the significant differences between Republican and Democratic administrations is that Democrats see governing as a matter of passing laws while Republicans see it as a problem of management and personnel. That means Republicans usually make better use of the deep and tangled powers of the executive branch, while Democrats make a lot of noise in Congress.

It took, for instance, President Clinton years to figure out how to move an agenda through executive orders and appointments. It was only in the last weeks of his presidency that Clinton did such things as blocking new developments and roads in national forests.

President Bush, on the other hand, is well served by an attitude and experienced assistants who are less interested in headlines than in footnotes and the makeup of such things as the U.S. delegations to the World Health Assembly in Geneva, which is the governing body of the World Health Organization. The WHO is a good and great thing that can probably lay justifiable claim to having saved and improved billions of lives around the world since it was created by the United Nations after World War II. Little rules, baby-care education programs and such things like clean water and the distribution of antibiotics have impact on the scale of the invention of electricity.

So who would you send? Usually the U.S. government sends officials of such generally worthy organizations as the American Public Health Association, the American Medical Association and the American Nurses Association. Forget it. They've just been kicked off to make room for organizations like the International Right to Life Federation, a prominent anti-abortion organization. Other recent delegations on health questions have included the National Law Center for Children and Families, a group whose stated mission is "the protection of children and families from the harmful effects of illegal pornography."

I suppose that's a good idea, particularly if you know the difference between legal and illegal pornography -- or if children in Africa live long enough to be threatened by illegal pornography. A number of faith-based -- meaning "Christian" -- groups are also being packed into American delegations to other world health and science activities.

I am a bigot about this because of what I saw in Central America during the 1980s. Traveling among refugees from the wars going on then in Nicaragua and El Salvador, I saw that the Reagan administration was contracting out refugee aid money to American Christian organizations, rather than to more experienced secular refugee organizations. The Americans I met then were nice and decent people, but what they were doing with the best of intentions was crazy. It is unnerving to say the least to see hungry adults, who seemed to be in shock, and sick children under attack from flies breeding in dirt latrines, being handed Bibles and learning to sing psalms with my fellow Americans.

The Bush administration, in my opinion, is more ideological than was the Reagan administration, and more effective. It is also more overtly Christian and evangelical, kind of the flip side of what you see in Muslim countries. Prayer services in public offices, begun here by Richard Nixon in 1969, are not my thing. What are we supposed to think when Justice Department employees gather at 8 a.m. to begin the workday with Bible study and prayer in the office of our Pentecostal attorney general?

This administration is already better organized and more internally cohesive and effective than the top-down Clinton administration ever was -- which means it will be more effective in pushing its agenda. It is obvious here that Christianity is part of the agenda of the Bush administration. Interestingly, foreigners seem struck by that more than most Americans; we, after all, are a proud, God-fearing people.

"'Compassionate conservatism' is a taxpayer-funded mission to allow religious groups to provide most government social programs, allowing them to run homeless shelters, drug-treatment programs, pregnancy-counseling services, prisons and unemployment offices," wrote Doug Sanders of the Toronto Globe and Mail in an article on Marvin Olasky, the University of Texas journalism professor who coined the term and is an adviser to President Bush.

When Sanders said to Olasky that some critics believe faith-basing will set back social problems a full century, the professor said: "That's exactly the point."

These are people who know what they're doing. Americans who disagree with what they are doing had better start paying closer attention at all levels of the federal government.

4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111; (816) 932-6600

More like Richard Reeves