WASHINGTON, Feb. 3 (JTA) — While many regard the Nation of Islam to be an anti-Semitic group, Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush recently had some kind words for the followers of the group’s leader, Louis Farrakhan.
When asked by the Fox network’s Tony Snow on Sunday if the Nation of Islam is a faith-based organization, Bush said, “I think it is. I think it’s based upon some universal principles,” such as “love your neighbor like you’d like to be loved yourself.” Bush said that those in the group who accept that notion have their hearts “set right to help a neighbor in need.”
Snow asked the question in context of the issue of charitable choice, which would provide public funding to faith-based organizations to run such programs as homeless shelters or drug abuse programs. The idea is supported by all the presidential candidates.
Asked by Snow if his response about the Nation of Islam meant that he would not mind having taxpayer money go to the group, Bush said, “I don’t like taxpayer money to support any religion. What I like is taxpayers’ money to support people who are seeking some kind of help, people that are trying to find some better answer to their lives. I don’t believe government ought to fund religion. I believe government can and should fund the people who are trying to help — and programs that help change people’s lives.”
Jewish Democrats criticized Bush’s comments on the Nation of Islam, questioning his characterization of the group and attacked his “expansive view of government funding of religious organizations” to include the Nation of Islam.
“If the principles that he’s speaking about are hatred, anti-Semitism and fear and loathing of others, then he is right,” said Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council. “But if he means anything else, he clearly does not understand the first thing about the Nation of Islam.”
In discussing their support for charitable choice, both the Democrats, Vice President Al Gore and Bill Bradley, have said safeguards need to be put in place to prohibit proselytizing and maintain a strict separation of church and state.
Under Gore’s proposal, religious institutions could receive federal funds for drug treatment programs, services for the homeless and initiatives to combat youth violence “without having to alter the religious character that is so often the key to their effectiveness.” But he has said secular alternatives should always be available and that people in need must not be required to participate in religious observances.
For his part, Bush has pledged to funnel $8 billion in public funds into faith-based organizations and set up an office at the White House to deal with the issue. The other top Republican candidate, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), also backs expanding charitable choice and has said he supports Bush’s approach.
Bush has not spoken about maintaining safeguards in the manner of Gore and Bradley, saying religion is fundamental to the success of the programs.
Bush spokesman Scott McClellan would not specifically address Bush’s comments or view of the Nation of Islam, only saying that the governor has “laid out a detailed plan to reach out to faith-based groups, churches, synagogues and charities to help those in need.” He added later, “There is no place for racism or anti-Semitism anywhere.
“Gov. Bush said we should fund programs that help people in need not for the purposes of supporting any religion,” he said. “Gov. Bush has made it clear that he will continue the commitment to pluralism, not discriminating for or against Christians, Jews or Muslims or good people of no faith at all.”
McClellan also said that Bush believes that “participation in faith-based programs should be truly voluntary and that there should be secular alternatives.”