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Bush's Faith-Based Initiative: Future Up For Grabs

Bush's Faith-Based Initiative: Future Up For Grabs

By Bill Berkowitz

After seven years both Democratic presidential candidates express support for and reservations about Republican religious patronage system

With the days of his administration numbered, President George W. Bush is working to shore up what was intended to be the centerpiece of his domestic policy agenda, his faith-based initiative.

However, unlike the much ballyhooed event that launched the program in January 2001, its seventh anniversary passed relatively quietly. On January 28, during his final State of the Union address, Bush urged Congress to permanently institutionalize the faith-based initiative. A day later, at the "Jericho" prisoner reentry program in Baltimore, Maryland, Bush said that when he came into office in January 2001, many "religious and community groups were providing effective assistance to people in need," but the federal government was not helping these groups do their work.

Now, through his faith-based initiative, the government is.

`The Quiet Revolution: The President's Faith-Based and Community Initiative: A Seven Year Progress Report'

Late last month, the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (OFBCI) issued a report titled "The Quiet Revolution: The President's Faith-Based and Community Initiative: A Seven Year Progress Report." Current OFBCI czar Jay Hein said that it was "not a final report or hard core evaluation" but "a progress report".

In an accompanying letter, Bush maintained that the initiative had "placed faith-based and community organizations at the centre of the government's response to human need." Bush pointed out that the initiative had "often been carried out with little fanfare", but that it had funded 18,000 faith-based and community organizations in 2006 alone that "serve at-risk youth, disaster victims, recovering addicts, returning prisoners, individuals with HIV/AIDS, the homeless, and many others."

Since its inception, Bush's faith-based initiative has come under fire not only from liberals, but from conservatives as well.

Early on, liberal groups questioned the need for a faith-based initiative, the nature of "charitable choice" -- a provision woven into the 1996 welfare reform bill that allowed religious organizations, with little government oversight, to compete for government funds to provide welfare services -- and whether the initiative would blur the boundaries between church and state.

Conservative critics, including such Christian evangelical leaders as Pat Robertson and the Rev. Jerry Falwell, expressed concern that government funds would be handed over to such groups as the Nation of Islam, the Church of Scientology and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.

More recently, some conservatives have taken pot shots at the initiative, charging the administration with using the initiative as a political weapon and not fully keeping its funding promises.

One of the administration's chief critics is David Kuo, the former second-in-command of the White House Office and the author of "Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction," a stinging critique of the administration's handling of the faith-based initiative. "If they had fulfilled the President's promises, there wouldn't be any need for" what Kuo characterized as "a glossy PR document that only proves the initiative's great failures."

A faith-based balance sheet

Getting the full measure of the successes and failures of Bush's faith-based initiative has never been an easy task. In addition to the successes trumpeted in the report, Bush's initiative has given the term "faith-based" extraordinary political currency.

On the other side of the balance sheet, there are still no adequate measures in place to gauge whether religious organizations providing social services outperform -- or even perform equally as well -- as their secular counterparts. The initiative has been used as a political football to both bolster Bush's standing within his conservative evangelical constituency and to recruit minority religious representatives. And, despite a series of legislative attempts, the faith-based initiative still hasn't received a congressional stamp of approval.

One of the reasons no congressional action has been taken is opposition to the insistence by a number of Christian groups that they be allowed to skirt existing civil rights laws regulating hiring.

In an interview with Christianity Today, John Dilulio, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the first director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, said that he believed the initiative should continue, but he acknowledged that it has a "mixed legacy".

While the "initiative put faith-based into the popular vernacular and onto the policy agenda," it also has been a target for "to quote Michael Gerson, extremists and cynics in both parties, including in the West Wing itself, have 'turned a bipartisan effort to help the poor into a culture war debate,'" Dilulio, the author of "Godly Republic: A Centrist Blueprint for America's Faith-Based Future," pointed out.

Dilulio, who was pushed out of office by movement conservatives, said he opposed "giving government dollars to agencies with behavioral codes and Christian-only hiring policies." When asked if "there any evidence to suggest that religious providers of social services are more effective than secular providers", Dilulio said that there was "No empirical evidence [showing] that program that promote spiritual transformation are more likely to succeed."

Presidential candidates voice support for faith-based program

Interestingly enough, while none of the three major presidential candidates have unveiled a specific plan for the White House's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, the Republican Party's Sen. John McCain, and Democratic Party hopefuls Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama "have each voiced support for federal funding of faith-based social services," Christianity Today recently reported.

Obama told Christianity Today that wants to take a look at the program before deciding how to deal with it: "One of the things that I think churches have to be mindful of is that if the federal government starts paying the piper, then they get to call the tune," Obama said. "I want to see how moneys have been allocated through that office before I make a firm commitment [to] sustaining practices that may not have worked as well as they should have."

Burns Strider, Clinton's director of faith-based outreach, "said that if she were elected, Clinton would continue funding faith-based organizations, but would seek to maintain an appropriate boundary between church and state," Christianity Today reported. "Clinton emphasizes a 'fair and level playing field' for faith-based and secular providers of social services, Strider said."

Brett O'Donnell, a spokesperson for McCain, told Christianity Today that his "candidate wants faith-based groups to 'have at least the same standing as they have now.'"


Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His column "Conservative Watch" documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the U.S. Right.

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