Spring 2005, Vol. 8, No. 1

Table of Contents
Spring 2005

Quick Links:
Articles in this issue

From the Editor:
What's In a Name?

Getting Right with the Pope

Why Moral Values Did Count

What Athens Has To Do With Jerusalem

Evangelicals Discover the Culture of Life

Sin and Redemption in Atlanta

The Faith-Based Initiative Re-ups

Same-Sex Toons



The Faith-Based Initiative Re-Ups
by Dennis R. Hoover


The faith-based initiative is back. Or so it seems to President Bush, who at a March 1 White House Faith-based and Community Initiatives Leadership Conference announced ambitious plans for advancing the initiative in his second term.

What really caught journalists’ attention, however, was some praise for it from another politician—Sen. Hilary Rodham Clinton. “There is no contradiction between support for faith-based initiatives and upholding our constitutional principles,” Clinton declared in keynoting an awards ceremony at a faith-based agency in Boston on the eve of Bush’s second inauguration, according to a report by Michael Jonas in the Boston Globe. “I’ve always been a praying person,” she added.

This high-profile (re)emergence of seeming bipartisanship underscores a confusion that has plagued coverage of the faith-based initiative since the beginning of the Bush administration: Is the initiative a creature of the right wing, a sop to socially conservative evangelicals? Or is it a manifestation of “third way” politics—an item on Bush’s (short) list of centrist achievements with which a savvy 2008 Democratic presidential hopeful might want to be associated?

The latter view has surfaced in discussions of the Democrats’ losses last November. Exit polls showing that a slight plurality of voters considered “moral values” the key issue in the campaign kicked off a continuing process of Democratic soul-searching. The worry is that the electorate has concluded that the Democratic Party has no soul to search.

The answer proposed by some Democrats (and warmly contested by others) is to tack to the center on hot-button issues involving religion. As Rev. Eugene Rivers, a prominent African-American Democrat and long-time backer of the faith-based initiative, explained to the Boston Herald’s Howard Manly January 4, “Liberals, especially those high-minded liberals, really don’t understand the faith factor. This move by Sen. Clinton should be particularly important to Democrats given the significance of the values issue in the recent election.”

For Hilary Clinton the strategy is a family favorite. It was her husband, after all, who signed into law the first legislative version of the faith-based initiative—the “charitable choice” provision introduced into the 1996 welfare reform bill by then-senator John Ashcroft of Missouri.

“Sen. Clinton Goes Right; Like Former President Bill Clinton Before Her, She’s Paving a ‘Third Way’ Between Liberalism and Conservatism,” ran the headline on Jerry Zremski’s A1 story in the March 20 Buffalo News. Zremski took Sen. Clinton’s rhetorical embrace of the faith-based initiative as one of several signs of a serious effort to shed her image as a left-liberal icon.

This characterization of the faith-based initiative as something with crossover appeal was rare early in George W. Bush’s first term. Perhaps because they had little background on the history and particulars of the policy, journalists tended to associate it mainly with Bush’s ties to conservative evangelicals. As a result, not a single news story anticipated the criticism the initiative received from the religious right.

Some conservative critics (Pat Robertson among them) worried that the policy was too pluralistic—that it would permit faith groups which they consider dangerous cults to become providers of publicly subsidized social services. Others, like University of Texas journalism professor Marvin Olasky (widely and inaccurately described as the godfather of charitable choice), complained that the policy would perpetuate government-funded welfare instead of reverting to good ol’ fashioned, privately funded rescue missions.

Ever since Bush took office there has been a profound disconnection between the way the issue has played out in Congress and how it has been received at the political and religious grassroots.

In Congress, a bill meant to legislatively reaffirm and expand the initiative turned into a partisan lightning rod. Its hapless history need not detain us here. Suffice it to say that the bill languished through the first Bush term even after most of the legislative language providing explicit protection for faith-based service con-tractors was removed, and even after the tax incentives for private humanitarianism were reduced to a pittance.

What’s more, reauthorization of existing laws that contain charitable choice provisions became a perennial fight, focused primarily on the question of whether faith-based organizations providing publicly funded services should be allowed to use religion as a criterion in their hiring.

But while the argument in Congress has seemed to conform to a stock “culture wars” narrative pitting religious right against religious left, out in the country the initiative continues to align with what might, for lack of a better term, be called the religious center. This center is populated by moderate Catholics and evangelicals (both white and Hispanic), and by a growing number of black Protestants.

The latter group is of course overwhelmingly Democratic. But it is noteworthy that between 2000 and 2004 Bush increased his percentage of the black vote from just nine percent to 13 percent.

Journalists seemed to find it novel and newsworthy that in the 2004 election cycle the faith-based initiative opened doors for Bush among black churchgoers. Newsworthy it was, but hardly novel. According to a widely cited 1998 national survey of congregations conducted by University of Arizona sociologist Mark Chaves, nearly two-thirds of black churches expressed interest in applying for government funds for social services—far higher than any other religious group.

The Washington Post was on to the story earlier than most. “Bush Courts Black Voters; In Southern Trip, He Emphasizes Faith-Based Plan” noted Amy Goldstein’s January 16, 2004 article. Later in the year, in the fall run-up to the election, other news media picked up on this angle of the story, particularly in battleground states. For example, on October 18, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Leonard Sykes reported on a significant coup scored by Bush in Wisconsin—an endorsement by Bishop Sedgwick Daniels, pastor of the 8,000-member Holy Redeemer Institutional Church of God in Christ, which sponsors many social services. Formerly a supporter of Democrats, Daniels switched to Bush because of school vouchers and faith-based initiatives.

While Bush did not increase his nationwide share of the black vote by much, as Jonathan Tilove astutely reported in the November 7 New Orleans Times Picayune, even small gains can be significant in a tight election. In Ohio, a state vital to Bush’s Electoral College majority, Bush won 16 percent of the black vote, up from nine percent in 2000. Using analysis provided by David Bositis, a scholar of black politics at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, Tilove noted that the change among black voters resulted in a net switch of 110,000 votes—which accounts for almost all of Bush’s slender margin in the state (136,000).

The Los Angeles Times devoted multiple articles and many column inches to providing exemplary coverage. In a 3,400-word piece published January 18, Peter Wallsten, Tom Hamburger, and Nicholas Riccardi noted that the conversions of black pastors were not entirely spontaneous. Just as Democrats have wooed black pastors for decades, the GOP is now painstakingly competing for their support, using traditional “moral values” issues like abortion and gay marriage alongside school vouchers and faith-based social services. 

“The political benefits are un-believable,” Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, a traditional values activist who helped craft the GOP strategy, told the Times. “The Democrats ought to have their heads examined for voting against this.” In March, the syndicated African-American columnist Clarence Page conceded as much: “As long as black voters, especially churchgoing black voters, see Mr. Bush as fighting for programs that can help black communities while his mostly Democratic critics are seen as getting in the way, Mr. Bush wins.”

Notwithstanding such political traction, the administration’s failure to translate the faith-based initiative’s “religious center” appeal into bipartisan-ship in Washington remains noteworthy. Perhaps bipartisanship is not what certain administration strategists ever really wanted, but in any case, lack of progress in Congress has forced Bush to achieve his desired expansion of charitable choice via a series of executive orders. All those regulations are vulnerable to reversal the minute a new president takes office.

The best analysis by journalists of the Bush administration’s failure to govern from the center on this issue is still the April 23, 2003 Washington Post article by Dana Milbank and Alan Cooperman, “Bush Legislative Approach Failed in Faith Bill Battle; White House Is Faulted for Not Building a Consensus in Congress.” The approach the Bush administration pursued was reminiscent of the take-no-prisoners strategy employed in its tax cut legislation: Present the Democrats with a fully formed policy and dare them to object. They did dare.

“Bush’s faith-based advisers re-commended proceeding with the noncontroversial tax incentives while holding off on the ‘charitable choice’ provisions to see if a consensus could be reached or if less controversial alternatives, such as vouchers or tax credits for individuals receiving treatment, could achieve the same purpose,” explained Milbank and Cooperman. “But Karl Rove and Bush’s other political strategists were hearing none of it. These advisers encouraged House Republicans to proceed quickly with full-fledged faith legislation, vastly expanding charitable choice.” Furthermore, Bush failed to use his clout to “coerce reluctant lawmakers to support the legislation’s significant price tag.”

In fact, there was enough blame to spread around on a bipartisan basis.

The politics of the faith-based initiative can be arrayed on two continuums: religion and money. At the extremes, the left wanted lots of government money for (and lots of control of) social services, with religion kept strictly separate, while the right wanted zero government money
(i.e., private charity only) and lots of religious morality and born-again con--versions. In the middle, various approaches were possible.

For purposes of (admittedly simplistic) illustration, consider the following chart:

To most observers, the world of social services prior to the advent of the faith-based initiative looked like position 4 on this chart. Therefore, logically, the best way for the Bush administration to attract center-left Democrats to its cause would have been to adopt position 4 with respect to money, and to find the least scary version of position 3 when it came to a “level playing field” for religion. At a minimum, it should have gone the extra mile to prove it was not interested in moving any further right than position 3 vis-à-vis money or religion. Instead, it raised fears that its true intentions were represented by position 2.

Ecumenically minded Democrats who were sympathetic to the faith-based initiative, such as E. J. Dionne and Jim Wallis, felt betrayed early on by the administration’s unwillingness to show the religious center the money. In a June 2003 letter to the president (quoted by Dionne in his June 10 Washington Post column), Wallis spoke for many of them: “The lack of consistent, coherent and integrated domestic policy that benefits low-income people makes our continued support for your faith-based initiative increasingly untenable.”

Nor has this complaint been confined to the left. In February of this year, David Kuo, former deputy director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, broke ranks, taking to the web pages of to blast the administration for breaking its promises. Describing the White House effort as “minimal,” Kuo wrote,  “No administration since [Lyndon B. Johnson’s] has had a more successful legislative record than this one. From tax cuts to Medicare, the White House gets what the White House really wants. It never really wanted the ‘poor people stuff.’” His comments were picked up by the Los Angeles Times in a February 15 article headlined “Faith-Based Plan Lacks Funds, Ex-Official Says.”

But if Republicans had trouble thinking outside their normal box when it came to funding, the same was true for Democrats when it came to the “faith” part of the faith-based initiative. There is little point in calling it a “faith-based” initiative if in practice religious providers are indistinguishable from secular ones. Some Democrats made the disingenuous claim that the “compromise” position was to provide funding for providers that are nominally affiliated with a religious group but secular in every operational sense. This was not a compromise; it was a reiteration of the status quo of the 1970s.

To be sure, under strict-separationist interpretations of the establishment clause of the Constitution, direct or indirect funding of programs that have religious content is unacceptable. But that interpretation is no longer the law of the land, and, in any case, it certainly no longer represents a “centrist” position in American political culture.

The biggest sticking point has been the issue of hiring. When faith-based organizations are awarded service contracts and then hire staff in part on the basis of religion, most Democrats have charged that it amounts to government-funded job discrimination, not religious freedom for faith-based organizations. But for true believers in the faith-based initiative, protecting religious hiring is only common sense—and absolutely non-negotiable. 

Notwithstanding its embarrassing retreats on its original faith-based bill, the Bush administration has pressed hard on this issue. In June of 2003, the administration sent a position paper to Congress spelling out its reasoning. When Ronald J. Sider, an evangelical Democrat who backs robust faith-based initiatives, was asked about it by the Washington Post, he remarked that it “indicates that they’re serious—and they darn well better be, because it’s crucial to a whole lot of us.”

Bush stressed the point again in his March 1 speech this year. The very next day, the House passed a Job Training Improvement bill that included explicit hiring protections for faith-based programs.

News coverage of the speech and the House action was thin—which is surprising, because the constitutional controversy over religious hiring is very likely to come to a head soon. The exception among major papers was, once again, the Los Angeles Times, which ran stories on both March 3 and March 7.

“Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 preserves the right of religious organizations to discriminate in hiring, it does not address the question of whether that applies to groups that accept public funds,” explained the Times’ Richard B. Schmitt on March 7. “That issue has not been legally resolved.” If the bill passes the Senate (which is not certain), it will almost certainly end up before the Supreme Court. In the same story, Schmitt also provided careful coverage of an important ongoing court case against the Salvation Army in New York that raises similar issues.

Liberal members of Congress and liberal interest groups are increasingly singling out the hiring issue as a political and legal cause célèbre. This bodes ill, of course, for the revival of the religious center in Congress. But what none of the recent coverage has explored is the crucial distinction between religious hiring in programs funded directly by the government or indirectly.

The latter alternative has much bright-er constitutional and political prospects than the former. Indeed, as the Washington Post’s Milbank and Cooperman suggested back in their 2003 analysis, an opportunity has perhaps been missed all along to find a more genuine compromise—namely, by pursuing “less controversial alternatives, such as vouchers.”

In theory, social service contracts that follow charitable choice rules produce an effect for beneficiaries similar to voucherized programs: Clients are only exposed to religious programs voluntarily. However, in order to maintain the delicate church-state balance, contracts with faith-based organizations are more complicated to monitor and run (funds must be segregated, opt-out policies must be created, etc.)—and they are more susceptible to the appearance, if not the reality, of political and religious corruption.

Voucherized systems are more transparent. They put the “choice” part of charitable choice more unambiguously in beneficiaries’ hands, and the route by which government funds arrive in religious organizations’ accounts is indirect.

To be sure, voucherization by no means eliminates all the potential abuses. But, at a minimum, the longstanding policy precedents (e.g., grants and loans to individuals attending sectarian colleges) and the new constitutional standing of the voucher principle (the Supreme Court’s 2002 Zelman decision) make it a much more secure basis on which to proceed.

Most likely, this is why one of the major priorities announced on March 1 by Bush for his faith-based initiative is “to identify programs that could be changed to expand individual choice [read: voucherize], including in mentoring, housing counseling and transitional housing, after-school programs, and homeless services.”

There may be too much partisan water under the bridge for our current faith-based president to recapture the religious center by funding initiatives in areas like this. But don’t rule out our next faith-based president trying again.


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