WASHINGTON, Feb. 4 (JTA) With religious faith emerging as one of the central themes of President Bush’s first weeks in office, the new president sought to stress religious inclusiveness at his first National Prayer Breakfast.
Bush said his administration would welcome all religions and “honor the diversity of our country and the deep convictions of our people.”
“America’s Constitution forbids a religious test for office, and that’s the way it should be,” Bush said at the Feb. 1 breakfast, which was hosted by a bipartisan group of lawmakers. “An American president serves people of every faith, and serves some of no faith at all.”
Following criticism about his plan to encourage faith-based social service initiatives, the president used the breakfast to emphasize the role the program will play in society.
“Government cannot be replaced by charities, but it can welcome them as partners instead of resenting them as rivals,” Bush said. “My administration will put the federal government squarely on the side of America’s armies of compassion.”
Bush said his plan will not favor religious institutions over secular ones, and said he was “interested in what is constitutional.”
Some groups opposed to the faith-based initiatives, under which religious institutions can receive government-supported social service contracts, say the Bush plan is short on details and leaves too many questions unanswered.
Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said Bush’s hesitancy in divulging details of his faith-based initiative showed that administration officials were listening to their critics.
“He’s affirming the general concept but not getting specific,” Saperstein said. Bush’s people “were really shocked by the outspoken criticism, and they are reviewing the noncentral parts of this program.”
Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs, said he hopes Bush’s comments will relieve concerns among groups that oppose the programs.
“There are certainly groups both within the Jewish community and outside who are quite entrenched in opposing faith-based initiatives,” Diament said. “But for those who are open minded and want to be reasonable, this speech should give them some encouragement.”
Neither Saperstein nor Diament was invited to the breakfast. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), who ran as part of the Democratic ticket against Bush in the November elections, was one of the few prominent Jews who attended the event.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said Bush made a sincere effort to alleviate the concerns expressed by opponents of his plan.
But Foxman warned that some groups might use the faith-based initiative to cross the constitutional separation between church and state.
Foxman, who criticized Lieberman’s frequent references to God during his run for vice president last year, said Bush was “very sensitive to people’s beliefs and nonbeliefs” in the speech.
During the Clinton administration, prayer breakfasts in Washington were occasionally controversial.
Two years ago, Lieberman joined Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat at a national prayer breakfast and prayed for him, angering some Jewish leaders.
In September 1998, President Clinton chose a prayer breakfast to apologize for his indiscretions in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, reading a passage from the Reform movement’s High Holidays prayer book.