Future Unclear for Faith-Based Initiatives

The seventh anniversary of President George W. Bush’s Faith Based Initiative passed quietly. Interestingly, as Sarah Pulliam reported for Christianity Today, candidates John McCain, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama "have each voiced support for federal funding of faith- based social services." 

Obama told Christianity Today that he 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 monies 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…. Clinton emphasizes a ‘fair and level playing field’ for faith- based and secular providers of social services." Brett O’Donnell, an advisor for McCain, told Christianity Today that his "candidate wants faith -based groups to ‘have at least the same standing as they have now.’" 

In his State of the Union message on January 28, Bush "announced a new national drive to make his faith-based agenda a permanent part of the federal government," Church & State, a publication of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, reported in its March issue.

The following day, Bush appeared at the Baltimore, Maryland-based Jericho prison re-entry program—which receives $660,000 a year from the U.S. Labor Department—where he addressed ex-offenders and staff and board members of Episcopal Community Services, which runs the service. "If a program was effective because they were willing to recognize a higher power, if a program was effective because people responded because they felt a call from a higher power, then to deny the higher power really reduced the effectiveness of the program," Bush said. "Our government should not fear the influence of faith in our society," Bush added. "Our government ought to welcome results. We ought to say, thank God there are people such as this in our neighborhoods and societies helping these good men." 

A month later the Office of Faith- Based and Community Initiatives (OFCBI) released a lengthy seven- year progress report titled "The Quiet Revolution: The President’s Faith-Based and Community Initiative: A Seven Year Progress Report." In a letter from the president accompanying the report, Bush said that the initiative had "placed faith-based and community organizations at the center of the government’s response to human need." The initiative had "often been carried out with little fanfare," but 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." 

The report pointed out the faith-based initiative had "grown each year and adapted to emerging challenges and expanded its influence at home and abroad." The "framework of this activity" includes five executive orders expanding the OFBCI reach across the federal government: 

  • Sixteen agency-level rule changes and a myriad of smaller policy reforms to level the playing field for faith-based and community organizations  
  • More than a dozen presidential initiatives aimed at some of
    society’s social problems 
  • Provision of in-person training to build capacity for more than 100,000 social entrepreneurs 
  • Measurement of FCBI’s progress, and ongoing improvement of program components as necessary 
  • Replication at the State and local government level 

OFCBI Director Jay Hein called the report, which he and staff had been working on since he took office in August 2006, "not a final report or hard core evaluation…. The report is a progress report." 

Stanley Carlson-Thies, director of social policy studies at the Washington, DC-based Center for Public Justice, told the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy in an email that while the initiative "has its shortcomings," the recently issued report "makes it clear that, contrary to the imaginings of some critics, this is a serious, substantive, careful, and significant effort to improve social services, make government collaboration with grassroots and faith-based groups more fruitful, and better follow the constitutional mandate to protect religious freedom and ensure equal treatment of all." 

Since its inception Bush’s faith-based initiative has come under fire from conservatives as well as liberals. Early on, liberal groups questioned the need for a faith-based initiative and 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 it would blur the boundaries between church and state. A National Gay and Lesbian Task Force report presciently described "charitable choice" as the massive "transfer of tax dollars to religious institutions…[that] often would come with no demand for fiscal accountability, no requirement that religious institutions not discriminate, and no safeguard against recipients of social services being subjected to proselytizing and other forms of coercive activity." 

Conservative Christian evangelical leaders like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell have expressed fears that government money would be handed over to such groups as the Nation of Islam, Church of Scientology, and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. More recently, a steady stream of conservatives have taken pot shots at what had been intended as the centerpiece of the Bush administration’s domestic policy agenda and the most tangible example of his "compassionate conservatism," charging the Administration with paying lip service to the initiative. 

Getting the full measure of Bush’s faith-based initiative is no easy task. There have been some notable faith-based "successes." It has given the term faith-based political currency and expanded the initiative to a number of states. According to the White House, some 35 governors and 100 mayors have established faith- based offices; opened the doors for more religious organizations to be eligible to receive government grants; doled out several billion dollars to mostly constituent religious groups; and overcome political opposition by issuing several executive orders to move the project forward. 

Critics point out 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. In addition, the initiative has been used as a religious patronage system to recruit minority religious officials and bolster Bush’s conservative evangelical constituency. 

The faith-based initiative still hasn’t received legislative approval. One of the reasons no congressional action has been taken is because a number of Christian groups have insisted 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 OFCBI and the author of Godly Republic: A Centrist Blueprint for America’s Faith-Based Future, was asked about the future of the faith-based initiative. While maintaining that it should continue, he acknowledged that the faith-based initiative has a "mixed legacy."

"On the one hand, the initiative put faith-based into the popular vernacular and onto the policy agenda…. On the other hand, 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, an independent academic who was pushed out of office by movement conservatives, pointed out that he was against giving government dollars to agencies with behavioral codes and Christian-only hiring policies: "If you are [suggesting] we ought to enlarge the ministerial exemption in civil-rights law to give religious nonprofits a right to discriminate against tax-funded employees on religious grounds, then I would urge caution. To level the playing field does not mean to tilt it in favor of religious nonprofits." 

In a press statement, Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United, pointed out that, "Bush has never been interested in a level playing field for faith-based groups, as he often claimed. He has been interested in tilting the field toward favored religious organizations that want to discriminate with government funds." 

While noting that it will likely be difficult for the president to get his new initiatives through Congress, Lynn also pointed out that you never know how things will go in an election year—especially one where both parties are playing the faith card. 

"Religion has flourished in this nation because of the cherished constitutional principle of church-state separation," Lynn added. "The president does a great disservice when using his office to promote public funding of religion."  


Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering conservative movements.