RELIGION IN THE NEWS
Spring 2001, Vol. 4, No. 1

Contents Page,
Spring 2001


Related Articles:

"Charitable Choice and the New Religious Center", Religion in the News, Spring 2000

"A Different Spiritual Politics", Religion in the News, Summer 1999

"A New Establishment?", Religion in the News, Fall 1998

"Religion and the Post-Welfare State", Religion in the News, Summer 1998

"Missing the Boat on Charitable Choice", Religion in the News, Summer 1998

Other articles
in this issue:

From the Editor:
Sacred is as Sacred Does

Palestinians and Israelis:
Rites of Return

Palestinians and Israelis:
Oh, Jerusalem!

Faith-Based Ambivalence

What Would Moses Do?:
Debt Relief in the Jubilee Year

Hide, Jesse, Hide

Faith in Justice:
The Ashcroft Fight

Aum Alone

Left Behind at the Box Office

The Voucher Circus

Puffing Exorcism


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ten Issues to Keep an Eye On
by Dennis R. Hoover

1. Existing Charitable Choice Legislation
Charitable choice has been the law of the land for welfare-to-work funds and other programs since 1996. By now journalists should know better than to portray Bush’s proposed expansion of the applicability of the charitable choice standard as a government appropriation earmarked for "religion." The new White House office will not have any authority to "distribute billions of dollars to religious groups and charities," as a January 29 AP story incorrectly announced. Charitable choice has been the law of the land for welfare-to-work funds and other programs since 1996. By now journalists should know better than to portray Bush’s proposed expansion of the applicability of the charitable choice standard as a government appropriation earmarked for "religion." The new White House office will not have any authority to "distribute billions of dollars to religious groups and charities," as a January 29 AP story incorrectly announced.

2. Culture War, and Beyond
Journalists should not force the charitable choice story into a stock "culture war" frame when only part of it actually fits. Hartford Courant columnist Laurence D. Cohen had clearly had enough of this when he wrote, "The news media are comfortable with molding all such disputes into a battle of stereotypes: the God-fearing vs. the godless, the liberals vs. the conservatives, the non-creedal sissy Protestants vs. the evangelicals…." While this was a less than charitable reading, some of the usual suspects on the religious right and religious left were indeed over-utilized, two especially: the conservative evangelical Marvin Olasky (who is not, contrary to what many reports suggested, the moving force behind charitable choice—he isn’t even a very big fan of it), and Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, the nation’s most accomplished provider of anti-religious right zingers. Journalists should be more creative with the Rolodex. For example, in a February 8 article AP religion writer Richard N. Ostling provided a useful overview of some key Protestant thinkers other than Olasky who have been influential in the turn toward FBOs, and Mary Leonard’s A1 story in the January 28 Boston Globe included along with Olasky and Lynn a broad array of religious leaders. Journalists should not force the charitable choice story into a stock "culture war" frame when only part of it actually fits. Hartford Courant columnist Laurence D. Cohen had clearly had enough of this when he wrote, "The news media are comfortable with molding all such disputes into a battle of stereotypes: the God-fearing vs. the godless, the liberals vs. the conservatives, the non-creedal sissy Protestants vs. the evangelicals…." While this was a less than charitable reading, some of the usual suspects on the religious right and religious left were indeed over-utilized, two especially: the conservative evangelical Marvin Olasky (who is not, contrary to what many reports suggested, the moving force behind charitable choice—he isn’t even a very big fan of it), and Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, the nation’s most accomplished provider of anti-religious right zingers. Journalists should be more creative with the Rolodex. For example, in a February 8 article AP religion writer Richard N. Ostling provided a useful overview of some key Protestant thinkers other than Olasky who have been influential in the turn toward FBOs, and Mary Leonard’s A1 story in the January 28 Boston Globe included along with Olasky and Lynn a broad array of religious leaders.

3. Potential Political Inroads Among Urban and Minority Communities
A February 4 Boston Globe editorial noted, "President Bush’s promotion of faith-based social services is criticized by secular liberals even as it is hailed in some minority communities they usually count as allies." Mark O’Keefe was alert to this potential appeal, noting in the New Orleans Times-Picayune that a 1998 national survey of congregations conducted by University of Arizona sociologist Mark Chaves found nearly two thirds of black churches expressed interest in applying for government funds for social services, far higher than any other religious group. O’Keefe quoted Eugene Rivers, a black Pentecostal pastor acclaimed for his work with troubled youth in Boston, who commented, "As a Democrat, I support this initiative as one of the most promising opportunities black churches have had in the last 30 years." Charges of cyclical political motives have already been leveled, however, and if they stick there may be little electoral gain for Bush. On the January 29 edition of CNN’s "Crossfire," Bill Press, the program’s host "from the left," challenged guest Rivers with, "[T]his is George Bush trying to steal African-American votes for his next go around." Notwithstanding his own partisan leanings, Rivers fired back, reminding Press that blacks are not "the disposable property of Democrats." A February 4 Boston Globe editorial noted, "President Bush’s promotion of faith-based social services is criticized by secular liberals even as it is hailed in some minority communities they usually count as allies." Mark O’Keefe was alert to this potential appeal, noting in the New Orleans Times-Picayune that a 1998 national survey of congregations conducted by University of Arizona sociologist Mark Chaves found nearly two thirds of black churches expressed interest in applying for government funds for social services, far higher than any other religious group. O’Keefe quoted Eugene Rivers, a black Pentecostal pastor acclaimed for his work with troubled youth in Boston, who commented, "As a Democrat, I support this initiative as one of the most promising opportunities black churches have had in the last 30 years." Charges of cyclical political motives have already been leveled, however, and if they stick there may be little electoral gain for Bush. On the January 29 edition of CNN’s "Crossfire," Bill Press, the program’s host "from the left," challenged guest Rivers with, "[T]his is George Bush trying to steal African-American votes for his next go around." Notwithstanding his own partisan leanings, Rivers fired back, reminding Press that blacks are not "the disposable property of Democrats."

4. Precedents
Many journalists noted in passing that government funding of FBOs is not a new thing, but few explored the details of this history. In "Bush’s Faith-Based Plan Borrows a Page From FDR," a February 18 Los Angeles Times op-ed, Marc Dollinger, scholar in residence at Princeton University’s Center for the Study of Religion, recalled that some New Deal programs provided funding to religious social welfare agencies. He also emphasized that Jewish groups were among the beneficiaries, not just in terms of funding, but also because the government "ultimately aided Jewish cultural survival by diverting private philanthropic dollars to new educational programs," becoming in effect, "a powerful ally in their fight against Jewish assimilation and illiteracy." Others saw parallels with the 1960s, though they tended to be less sanguine. Kenneth Woodward’s piece in the February 12 issue of Newsweek noted that "Bush is embarking on a mission akin to Lyndon Johnson’s War of Poverty, which funneled money not to government agencies but to local organizations that sometimes lacked the wherewithal to deliver the services as promised." Many journalists noted in passing that government funding of FBOs is not a new thing, but few explored the details of this history. In "Bush’s Faith-Based Plan Borrows a Page From FDR," a February 18 Los Angeles Times op-ed, Marc Dollinger, scholar in residence at Princeton University’s Center for the Study of Religion, recalled that some New Deal programs provided funding to religious social welfare agencies. He also emphasized that Jewish groups were among the beneficiaries, not just in terms of funding, but also because the government "ultimately aided Jewish cultural survival by diverting private philanthropic dollars to new educational programs," becoming in effect, "a powerful ally in their fight against Jewish assimilation and illiteracy." Others saw parallels with the 1960s, though they tended to be less sanguine. Kenneth Woodward’s piece in the February 12 issue of Newsweek noted that "Bush is embarking on a mission akin to Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, which funneled money not to government agencies but to local organizations that sometimes lacked the wherewithal to deliver the services as promised."

5. The "Fungible Funds" Argument
In her February 1 column vigorously rejecting Bush’s plan, Molly Ivins of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram wrote that "money is fungible, a wonderful word meaning interchangeable. If you give money to a church for one purpose, that in turn helps fund the church’s other purposes since, obviously, it has more money." A number of reporters and columnists picked up on this argument, but there was little understanding of how easily the "fungibility" argument can be turned in different directions. There was Michael Kinsley’s January 26 column in the Washington Post, which complained, "President Bush has cut off family-planning funds for international organizations that finance abortions on the grounds that money given for one thing frees up money for the other. But he does not apply the same logic to his plans to subsidize church education. If a birth-control grant to some agency amounts to taxpayers funding abortions, why isn’t a grant to a church school essentially forcing me to pay for candles and incense?" Then, in the same paper a few days later, George Will saw liberals’ arguments as "political pleading dressed up as constitutional law. Planned Parenthood, a secular lobby for abortion rights, received in 1999 $176.5 million—27 percent of its revenues—in government grants. Yet many people who approve that now say that if government delivers assistance through religious organizations, America will be threatened by theocracy." Journalists should appreciate that in a modern welfare state the "fungible funds" argument is a two-edged butter knife—it cuts both ways but dully, since both conservatives and liberals are wielding it in their own transparently self-serving direction.

6. The Role of Congregations
On January 29, Los Angeles Times religion writer Teresa Watanabe wrote of the uncertain prospects for Bush’s plan, noting, "It isn’t clear how many congregations even want to enlist in the battle." But this may not be the best way of formulating the issue. As Newsweek’s Ken Woodward pointed out, "[M]ost religious congregations cannot—or will not—provide the money or staff or know-how to work directly with those in need...[H]alf of the congregations in the United States have 75 members or less." Therefore, although much of the rhetoric seems to imagine FBOs as congregations, most of the action is likely to be in broader ecumenical endeavors and existing religiously affiliated agencies. Journalists should keep this in mind when they encounter the burgeoning number of scholarly studies of congregations. For example, a number of journalists have become aware of Chaves’ valuable 1998 National Congregations Study. Only a tiny minority of congregations, 3 percent, reported actually receiving public funds for social services, but a more substantial minority, 36 percent, reported being open to the idea of applying for such funds. Since the nation has 300,000-plus congregations, even a modest increase above the 3 percent level could translate into a visible change in social services in some areas. Still, lack of institutional capacity and other constraints on congregations mean that their importance for charitable choice needs to be evaluated within the broader FBO context.

7. Legal Doctrine
For all the overworked metaphors about the "wall of separation," few journalists considered actual case law or Supreme Court jurisprudence in any detail. The Los Angeles Times’ David G. Savage was an exception, noting in a January 30 piece that there appear to be four votes on the Supreme Court for a "neutrality" doctrine of the establishment clause that would presumably be favorable to charitable choice, with Justice O’Connor in a swing position. (Almost all of the speculation about President Bush’s potential Supreme Court appointments has focused on abortion, but this area of the law is at least as important to Bush).

8. Public Opinion
As reported by Jean Torkelson in the February 3 Rocky Mountain News, a recent poll of Protestant pastors found about two-thirds approving of federal aid to faith-based social services. And on January 10 the New York Times’ Laurie Goodstein reported on a Public Agenda poll of the general public that showed virtually the same level of support. When this poll asked a more specific question of whether public funds should be available even for programs that promote their own religious message, support remained substantial but slipped below a majority—44 percent. Future reporting on poll results needs to pay close attention to survey wording—e.g., did the survey describe what the charitable choice law does and does not allow before asking for a reaction to it? Was there a spin put on the description or the wording of the question?

9. Special Exemptions for FBOs?
There is a distinction between charitable choice and what might be called the "faith-based movement." The former attempts to put FBOs on a level playing field with other private providers vis--vis applications for government funds. The latter believes that FBOs need and/or deserve special, sweeping exemptions from regulation. As Governor of Texas, Bush backed exemptions from health, safety, and licensing requirements for faith-based groups providing drug treatment and programs for troubled youth. As reported by Hanna Rosin in the Washington Post last year, accusations of abusive behavior by the staff of one such young-adult program in Corpus Christi raised questions about Bush’s Texas initiative. So far, Bush’s national initiative is focused more narrowly on charitable choice, but time will tell.

10. Funding Level:
10. Funding Levels
On its face, the extension of charitable choice has no necessary connection with overall levels of government spending on social services. However, some have argued that if faith-based organizations prove to be more effective in eliminating the need for social services, then public spending can and should be reduced. Others have argued that charitable choice may broaden the coalition in support of public funding, and that maintaining secular alternatives alongside religious providers may well require a net increase in public expenditure, not a decrease. How the Bush administration handles this new version of a very old debate about welfare spending warrants close scrutiny.

See companion article, Faith-Based Ambivalence


Related Articles:

"Charitable Choice and the New Religious Center", Religion in the News, Spring 2000

"A Different Spiritual Politics", Religion in the News, Summer 1999

"A New Establishment?", Religion in the News, Fall 1998

"Religion and the Post-Welfare State", Religion in the News, Summer 1998

"Missing the Boat on Charitable Choice", Religion in the News, Summer 1998