George W. Bush and Al Gore both profess to believe in federalism, but they don't necessarily mean the same thing when they talk about it. There is no better proof of that than their differences on religion, especially on the role of "faith-based organizations" in solving social problems.

Faith-based organizations all but define Bush's compassionate conservatism: compassion, by uniting religious caring with effective service delivery; conservatism, by pushing service delivery out of formal government agencies wherever possible. Bush argues aggressively that government ought to rely far more on these religious organizations. He has repeatedly said that "government can spend money, but it cannot put hope in people's hearts or a sense of purpose in their lives."

In the vanguard of Bush's "armies of compassion" are religious leaders such as the Reverend Luis Centeno, who leads Bethel Temple Bible Church in a scarred North Philadelphia neighborhood. Bethel runs health and preschool programs, hosts karate classes and nurseries. He has helped rehabilitate crack houses to shelter pregnant women, and has reclaimed recovering drug addicts. Reverend Centeno insists he can accomplish a lot more with just a little money--if only government gets out of his way. Another champion of this strategy, Boston's Reverend Eugene Rivers, argues that "for a generation of young people drowning in their own blood, faith-based institutions are the only hope left."

It has created a dilemma for Candidate Gore, who contends he's just as compassionate as Bush--but who worries about expanding government support to the faith-based world. He cautions that faith-based programs could force individuals to embrace a particular religion.

All this puts a new twist on the issue of separating church and state. Can the faith-based efforts maintain their religion-driven approach, which is the key to their effectiveness, while they secularize themselves enough to pass constitutional muster?

Of course, governments have long been relying on non-governmental organizations, including churches, to deliver social services. That's been especially true of local services funded by state and, especially, federal money. What's new is that the Bush strategy explicitly embraces non-governmental organizations that have a strong religious approach. In doing so, it inevitably raises important constitutional issues.

But the whole debate raises another question as well. How exactly did the Republicans end up as the party of grassroots social concern? Back in the 1960s, in the heyday of the Johnson administration's Model Cities program, it was the Democrats who led the charge to bypass city governments and fund neighborhood organizations. Their argument was that existing political institutions were not sufficiently responsive to community needs. The only practical answer was to empower neighborhood leaders to help solve their own problems. Local governments were required to ensure "maximum feasible participation" by the poor in designing any program intended to help them.

Now, 35 years later, Democrats find themselves struggling with the legacy of their own programs. They are up against decades of audits and other evidence demonstrating that many community organizations, no matter how well intended, just don't have the capacity to manage money well--and that government hasn't always proved effective either in monitoring the programs or in helping these organizations build capacity.

And it is Republicans, not just in the presidential campaign but in state and local politics all over America, who argue that existing governmental programs aren't responsive enough. They are saying that the nation needs to bypass local governments--and the network of large, liberal leaning nonprofit contractors. Programs work better, Bush's GOP allies contend, when they motivate individuals from the inside out. Close your eyes during one of these speeches, and you might easily imagine yourself listening to an address at the Office of Economic Opportunity in 1967.

It's a long way from the 1994 Republican Contract with America, with its effort to shrink the size and role of government altogether, to the 2000 Bush campaign, with its effort to expand government's use of small, ground-level non-governmental organizations as front-line providers of public services.

But it represents a transition that public opinion as a whole seems to be making. It's now clear that non-governmental organizations have squarely--and, in all likelihood, permanently--moved to the front lines of the government-funded social service network. It's also clear that this means major change for local governments, which traditionally have been responsible for front-line service delivery, but which faith-based programs bypass.

We have moved from a debate over privatizing the governmental sector to a debate about governmentalizing the private sector. That's a profound transformation, but it's one that has been quietly gathering momentum since the disappointments of the Great Society became evident three decades ago.