Prepared Remarks of Attorney General John Ashcroft
White House Faith-Based Conference, Tampa, Florida
Friday, December 5, 2003
(Please Note: The Attorney General Often Deviates From Prepared Remarks)
Thank you, Governor Bush.
This meeting reminds me of the story of the two pastors who are fishing by the side of a country road. Next to them is a large sign that reads, "Turn back! End is near!"
The two men-of-the-cloth hear a car approaching. They turn and point to the sign. The driver looks at the sign. He looks at them. He yells, "This is a public road, stop preaching," and zooms off. Soon, the two men hear a huge splash.
One preacher turns to the other and says, "See? I told you the sign should just say, 'Bridge Out.'"
Just a few years ago, meetings to discuss how people of faith can play a role in the public square might have been met with the reaction of that driver. Times have changed.
It is always an honor to speak before a gathering of faith-based organizations. I am sure that for many of you, this is the most critical time of year for what you do. Thank you for taking the time to gather, to share ideas and to show the strength in numbers of the faith-based community ... a strength that is transforming the lives of so many across our nation.
Many of us met last January in Colorado. The devastation of September 11 was still fresh in our memories. But over the past two years, we have seen tragedy give way to courage, suffering give way to sacrifice, and common loss give way to uncommon kinship.
We have been reminded of the fundamental values that define our nation ... courage, sacrifice, the dignity of every person, and faith.
Through faith, we as individuals and as a nation have learned humility. With faith, we understand that it is right to be kind and just, to love our neighbor, as we would want to be loved ourselves. Faith enables us to rise above individual wants and desires; to achieve something greater than ourselves.
Faith also provides us with a deeper understanding of the value that more than any other defines our nation: freedom. All people of faith find the source of human freedom in the Creator. People of all religions are called to the defense of His creation.
Freedom is God's gift of significance ... the ability to make choices knowing that what we choose has real consequences. It is not freedom from consequence.
This gift of significance ... the promise of true freedom ... is a gift you give every day. You are deploying what Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Workers Movement, called, "the weapons of the spirit." You are extending the blessings of freedom by touching the hearts and souls of your fellow man.
But it is not enough to praise the work you do. We must support your efforts. Saying that, I recall the words of President Ronald Reagan, who said that the most frightening nine words in the English language are, "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help."
Long before government began trying to help us all, it was largely people like you who met the needs of the poor and the downtrodden. Disease was treated by church-run hospitals. Children were sheltered by church-sponsored orphanages, and educated by church-sponsored schools. Families were fed and lives were saved by citizens reaching out to those in need.
Today, government has become involved in many of these areas. But the majority of social services are administered not by Washington bureaucrats, but by many of the same kinds of compassionate individuals and institutions that did so one hundred years ago. For every federal worker who delivers social services, there are six ordinary citizens doing extraordinary good for those in need.
Government does have a role. But it should be with the insight that help is better when it is local, not long distance. It should be with the understanding that compassion works best when it is motivated by love, not by entitlement.
A government check may relieve hunger, but it might not supply hope. A federal agency can provide temporary shelter, but it does not offer the integrity of independence.
Government must be active enough to fund services, and humble enough to let good people do good work where it is needed most.
Unfortunately, we know it has not always worked that way. For many years, faith-based and other community groups were prohibited from competing for federal funding:
- New York's Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty has for many years provided social services in the City of New York. The federal government told the Council that it could not apply for federal grants because the word "Jewish" appeared in its title.
- South Dakota's St. Francis House Homeless Shelter was precluded from receiving federal funds because it provided a prayer before meals were served.
- The Wilkinson Center of Dallas, Texas, provided food, clothing, and support to anyone in need. But when the center applied for a federal grant to upgrade its kitchen facilities, it was turned down because the Center's mission statement made reference to God.
Motivated by these and other examples of government discrimination against faith-based organizations, I led a bipartisan group of Senators in 1996 to enact Charitable Choice.
Charitable Choice was intended to level and broaden the playing field so that secular and sacred organizations could have an equal opportunity to cooperate with government and bring the most effective programs to help feed the hungry, heal the sick, and shelter the homeless.
Charitable Choice has been in place for six years, but it was not until President Bush took the oath of office that faith-based organizations serving our communities began to receive encouragement from the federal government.
President Bush came to office knowing that government can fund services, but that it is the citizens who can provide compassion. Charitable groups and grassroots organizations fill needs that government, no matter how well intentioned, generously funded, or carefully designed, may not.
At the Department of Justice, we have been focused for more than two years on protecting the lives and liberty of our citizens from the threat of terrorism. We have done this successfully while also driving down the rate of violent crime in this country to its lowest level in 30 years.
America's streets are safer in part because of the work the Department has undertaken as one of the federal government's six Centers for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. By partnering with caring and compassionate community-based organizations, we have been able to help alleviate the potential for criminal activity before it can occur. We are:
- linking troubled teens with caring mentors;
- helping alcoholics and drug addicts along the path to recovery; and
- assisting rehabilitated offenders in re-entering our communities as productive citizens.
These programs change lives by touching hearts. Every American deserves to know that their choices matter. Every American deserves the gift of significance.
Across the country, we have seen the power such programs can have in steering troubled young people toward a personally and civically productive life.
For example, in Colorado, Natasha Williams described herself as "a bad little 6th grader." She joined the Positive Connection after-school program for middle-school students, which was administered by a faith-based organization. But when she left middle school, she left the program.
A few years later, as a high school junior, Natasha did not have a choice in whether to join Positive Connection. After being caught attempting to shop lift, a court made the decision for her.
The staff of Positive Connection built a relationship with Williams, counseling and mentoring her. She earned two credits for a high school class that helped her to graduate. Today, Natasha Williams is the first person in her family not only to graduate from high school but also to attend college.
Through a message of hope, young people who have been told all their lives that freedom means, "just do it ... it will not make a difference," can learn the true meaning of freedom and the full potential of their lives.
For when you are told that your choices are without consequences, you are not told that you are free. You are told that you are meaningless.
Every life has meaning; everyone has something to contribute.
Today, America is a nation called to a better understanding of the ideas that have shaped us. The values we hold ... truth, human dignity, and freedom ... are under assault in the world. And in the midst of this assault, we have learned that our values are neither self-executing nor self-sustaining. They must be defended, not just with military might, but with deeper devotion from us all.
Through the message of faith, you uphold our values while uplifting lives. You offer real freedom to those who are misled by voices in the culture that extol instant gratification and who find themselves imprisoned in the mirage of a world without consequences.
Your work inspires ... and will continue to inspire ... self-respect and love for all of God's children. You are strengthening the character of our nation while inspiring bold deeds ... one soul at a time.
Know that the Department of Justice supports your work. Know that your nation is grateful. And know that in a world of freedom, there is no doubt that you will prevail.
Thank you. God bless you and God bless America.