e-mail us


Two cheers for the faith-based initiative

On one level, as the White House acknowledges, there is very little that is new about the president’s faith-based initiative. Many of the largest nonprofit social service agencies in the country -- Catholic Charities is a prominent example -- are driven by a religious imperative to care for those among us who have the least. In the course of that work, these agencies apply for, and receive, hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded grants.

So why has the Bush initiative generated so much controversy?

First, the president has placed the faith-based initiative at the center of his domestic policy agenda. His policy goal is to tear down barriers faced by religious-affiliated charities when they apply for federal money. He has done this through executive orders establishing faith-based outreach offices within various federal agencies. Their job is to make sure religious institutions know about federal grant opportunities and remove any undue obstacles to their participation.

The president’s political goal, say some Demo-crats, is twofold: to direct federal money to members of the minority community most receptive to Republican ideas and to put a “compassionate conservative” face on the party in order to attract moderate white suburbanites.

Next, say the plan’s critics, the faith-based initiative provides camouflage for the administration’s otherwise anemic domestic agenda. It’s just so much public relations, these critics say, replacing effective programs with feel-good faith-based social action.

Third, and most vociferously, are those who argue that the Bush initiative cracks the wall of separation between church and state.

Let’s take them one at a time.

It is true enough that the faith-based initiative serves the president’s political goals. Nothing unusual here: It’s hard to imagine any administration -- Democrat or Republican -- embracing a plan that runs counter to its political interests. But the Bush team’s sincerity was brought into real doubt when the first director of the faith-based office, John DiIulio, said out loud what many had been thinking: The top level policymakers in the Bush White House have little concern for programs that would aid the poor and instead see the faith-based agenda as a means of pleasing needed constituencies (NCR, Dec. 13).

On the plus side, the current director of the initiative, Jim Towey, appears to have removed some of the more blatant political posturing that has gone on and is genuinely committed to improving the lives of the nation’s poor. Whether Towey can outmaneuver those in the White House whose sole interest is political advantage remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, those who argue that the Bush plan is a poor excuse for a domestic policy program have a good point. Other than additional tax cuts, the faith-based initiative is about all there is to the Bush domestic agenda. The program is worth a shot on its merits -- there are many congregations out there who can and would benefit from federal funds -- but it is not a replacement for the resources only government can bring to bear in a host of areas, from health care and housing to education and job training.

Finally, there is the church-state question. Here, it appears, the administration is getting a bad rap. Opponents argue that the Bush plan would allow church groups to proselytize on Uncle Sam’s dollar and that, under the Bush plan, faith-based groups could discriminate in hiring.

These fears are overstated. Here’s the guidance the White House recently provided to religious groups seeking federal grants: “A faith-based organization should take steps to ensure that its inherently religious activities, such as religious worship, instruction or proselytization, are separate -- in time or location -- from the government-funded services that it offers. If, for example, your church receives federal money to help unemployed people improve their job skills, you may conduct this program in a room in the church hall and still have a Bible study taking place in another room in the same hall (but no federal money can be used to conduct the Bible study). Or a faith-based social service provider may conduct its programs in the same room that it uses to conduct religious activities, so long as its government-funded services and its religious activities are held at different times.”

There’s obvious potential for abuse here, but it would seem the administration is taking a common sense approach and should be lauded for it.

Hiring discrimination is, perhaps, a more troublesome issue. The administration argues that religious groups are currently exempt from employment discrimination laws because such requirements could undermine their very reason for existence.

The issue is interesting from a legal point of view, but as a practical matter it is not particularly significant. The vast majority of those employed by the faith-based groups are, naturally enough, members of the religion sponsoring the ministry. Perhaps there is room for compromise here, but the employment issue should not be the determining factor in whether a particular program is funded.

The reality -- even before this initiative -- is that government social service agencies rely on faith-based organizations to do much of the day-to-day work of managing day care centers, job training programs, soup kitchens and homeless shelters that are the backbone of our frayed social safety net. They deserve support. This is not a case, as some have made it, of someone punching a new hole in the wall separating church and state. It is more a matter of an army of small agencies following the trail of larger entities, grounded in religious traditions, that have become the main social care delivery systems in the country.

It bears repeating that the sheer number of potential new recipients of government money is reason for concern and diligent oversight. But arguing the fundamental point that faith-based groups should not be permitted to use government funds in the performance of their duties would be arguing to unravel the social service system now in place.

Political infighting and the finer points of church-state separation are not top of mind to those whose job it is to train an unskilled worker, to feed the hungry or to shelter a homeless family.

Thank God for that.

National Catholic Reporter, January 10, 2003