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OUTH BEND, Ind., May 20 -- President Bush used a commencement address at the University of Notre Dame today to cast the involvement of religious institutions in federally financed social work as the next, crucial wave in a war on poverty that President Lyndon B. Johnson declared more than three decades ago.
Leaning on language more sweeping than he typically uses, Mr. Bush said government did the right thing in the 1960's by expanding services to poor Americans and the right thing in the 1990's by putting limits on such assistance. Now, he said, it was time for government to act as a catalyst for the private sector -- to encourage individuals and groups, including religious ones, to address the needs of those who are struggling.
"There is no great society which is not a caring society," Mr. Bush told thousands of students and teachers here, invoking a phrase associated with President Johnson's ambitious social programs. Then, referring to the co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, which is devoted to helping needy people, Mr. Bush added, "Any effective war on poverty must deploy what Dorothy Day called Āthe weapons of spirit.' "
"The war on poverty established a federal commitment to the poor," Mr. Bush said. "The welfare reform legislation of 1996 made that commitment more effective. For the task ahead, we must move to the third stage of combating poverty in America. Our society must enlist, equip and empower idealistic Americans in the works of compassion that only they can provide."
Mr. Bush was trying to lend definition to his stated philosophy of compassionate conservatism, a slogan that remains fuzzy in the minds of some voters and empty in the minds of others. He was also trying the kind of political repositioning that attended the unveiling last week of his administration's energy policy, belatedly dressed up in the forest-green ribbons and bows of energy conservation and efficiency.
He described continued poverty in this country as an urgent summons to action, even as he told Americans that they -- and not the government -- needed to be the principal actors. He praised not only President Johnson, a Democrat, but also President Bill Clinton, another Democrat, giving Mr. Clinton credit for signing the 1996 welfare overhaul legislation, versions of which Mr. Clinton had previously vetoed.
And Mr. Bush aggressively courted Roman Catholics, a bloc of swing voters who make up about a quarter of the electorate and narrowly favored former Vice President Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election.
Notre Dame, a Catholic institution, is one of three colleges where Mr. Bush will deliver commencement addresses over the next week, and in the first 30 seconds of his 21-minute speech here, Mr. Bush, who is Methodist, mentioned that his brother Jeb, the Florida governor, is Catholic.
The president's visit to Notre Dame coincided with an announcement that the university had endowed a Laura Bush Scholarship, in honor of his wife, that will each year pay tuition for a chosen student enrolled in a Catholic elementary or secondary school in Texas. This week, Mr. Bush will visit a Catholic church in Cleveland. (He will also speak at the commencement exercises at Yale and the United States Naval Academy.)
For his appearance here today, Mr. Bush donned a majestic royal blue commencement gown, tugging against its collar with his fingers. He received both an honorary doctor of laws degree and the praise of the university's provost, Nathan O. Hatch, who called him "a straightforward, faith-based Texan."
After that introduction, Mr. Bush offered his most detailed defense to date of his desire to let religious groups receive more federal money. He noted that 6 of the 10 largest corporate givers in the country forbid or restrict donations to religious groups, and he urged them not to do so, saying that he would convene a summit meeting this fall to ask philanthropic leaders to review these policies.
"Medicaid and Medicare money currently goes to religious hospitals," Mr. Bush said. "Should this practice be ended? Child care vouchers for low-income families are redeemed every day at houses of worship across America. Should this be prevented? Government loans send countless students to religious colleges. Should that be banned? Of course not."
"America," he concluded, "has a long tradition of accommodating and encouraging religious institutions when they pursue public goals."
The ardor of Mr. Bush's appeal undoubtedly reflected the considerable resistance that his efforts have met.
Both civil libertarians and some religious leaders charge that Mr. Bush is dangerously blurring the boundary between church and state, and the legislation associated with the president's efforts is merely plodding through Congress. With his remarks today, Mr. Bush was trying to give it a momentum it has yet to gather.
He was also trying, after an initial stretch in office that left many Americans questioning his degree of concern for them, to put an extra emphasis on the compassion that he links to his conservatism.
He unveiled one modest new spending increase with which he would seek to help impoverished Americans, saying that in the budget he presents to Congress next year, he would propose raising the amount of annual federal assistance for low- income home ownership programs to $75 million, from $25 million.
Democrats have said that Mr. Bush's first budget, which significantly reduces the growth in federal spending, will cripple important social programs. Even some Republicans have protested the amount of money Mr. Bush wants to return to the richest Americans as part of a sweeping tax cut.
But Mr. Bush said today that he was expanding spending in some critical areas and pursuing measures, like allowing taxpayers who do not itemize their returns to deduct charitable contributions, that would prompt more private help for the poor.
He summarized his approach by saying that government "must be active enough to fund services for the poor and humble enough to let good people in local communities provide those services."
Mr. Bush's appeal to Catholics has been consistent and vigorous, encompassing frequent meetings with cardinals and archbishops and a speech this year at the dedication of a center at Catholic University in honor of Pope John Paul II. He plans to meet the pope in Italy in July.
During his presidential campaign last year, Mr. Bush offended many Catholics by giving a speech at Bob Jones University in South Carolina, a conservative college with a history of anti-Catholic bias. He later wrote a letter of apology to Cardinal John J. O'Connor, who was then archbishop of New York.
In November, he beat Mr. Gore among white Catholics, according to surveys of voters leaving the polls, but not among all Catholics, probably because Mr. Gore did much better with Hispanic voters. Mr. Bush's schedule this week includes separate speeches in Washington to leaders of the Hispanic Scholarship Fund and the Hispanic Faith-Based Organizations Community.
But Mr. Bush's sights today were not trained exclusively on Catholics. He seemed to reach out to religious conservatives of all stripes by extolling the need "to protect life in all its stages." He also mentioned that "Jewish prophets and Catholic teaching both speak of God's special concern for the poor."