e-mail us
Faith-based chief faces ideological minefield


A key component of President Bush’s “Faith-Based Initiative” will likely die before Congress adjourns. The legislation would allow government-supported faith-based social service providers to maintain their “religious character” and provide $10.4 billion in additional tax breaks for charitable contributions.

But that doesn’t mean the increasingly nasty fight over the role religious groups should play in providing services to the poor is over.

In fact, it’s just begun. And it’s likely to get more heated next year as Congress prepares to reauthorize Head Start, energy assistance for the poor, the Community Services Block Grant, and a slew of anti-poverty efforts under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

In one corner is Bush’s point man -- director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives Jim Towey. The 46-year-old father of four has worked for Democrats -- under former Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles -- and Republicans, including former Oregon Sen. Mark Hatfield and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who reportedly recommended him for his current job. Towey spent 12 years as legal counsel to the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa’s religious order, and lived for a year as a fulltime volunteer in one of the order’s homes for AIDS patients.

Towey’s office exists, he said, to knock down the barriers that prevent churches, synagogues, mosques and other faith-based groups from receiving federal funds to carry out an essential part of their mission: serving the needy. This can be accomplished, he told NCR, in a nonpartisan manner that upholds constitutional church-state separation provisions.

“There’s been a real unfriendliness to faith in the public square, and the president has said repeatedly that we don’t need to fear faith -- that we can respect our Constitution and at the same time welcome faith in the public square as it serves the poor.” Even as they seek to provide secular services such as job training or soup kitchens, religious groups have been forced to disguise their faith-based roots or jump through bureaucratic hoops to become eligible for such funding, said Towey.

“The focus should be on the quality of the service provider. The question shouldn’t be, ‘Does your organization believe in God or not?’ The question should be, ‘Does your program work? Are people’s lives being turned around? Is there accountability? Is the group maintaining separation of its public funds from its private funds?’ ”

Said Towey: “You need to make it clear to groups that they are not to preach on Uncle Sam’s dollar and that they are not to promote religious beliefs or practices on the government’s dime.” Short of that, however, religious groups should compete for federal money on the same level as secular organizations, said Towey.

Critics see another agenda at play.

“Are we talking new initiatives to meet unmet needs?” asked National Community Action Foundation executive director David Bradley. “Or are we simply going to rearrange the deck and take existing money away from effective social service agencies and give [it] to others [with little regard for their] ability or competence?”

“Show me the new funds, the new resources,” said Jesuit Fr. Joseph Hacala, formerly director of the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Community and Interfaith Outreach in the Clinton administration.

Hacala supports government aid to faith-based groups. He’d just like to see more of it. “They’re robbing Peter to pay Paul -- the administration has cut a significant amount of money that went to faith-based groups,” including funds to provide the technical assistance these groups need to administer complex programs, he said.

Meanwhile, a brouhaha has erupted over what some consider partisan activity by Towey and his faith-based colleagues. “The faith-based office is conducting seminars in congressional districts that just happen to have very close races coming up,” said Americans United for Separation of Church and State executive director Barry Lynn. “They’ve created a kind of faith-based slush fund and they’re dangling it around the country,” particularly in African-American communities, said Lynn. The goal? Change a few votes prior to November’s election and preserve Republican control of the House of Representatives.

Towey denies it. “I think groups like Americans United for Separation of Church and State are extremist groups -- their views are not mainstream America. And when they talk about … slush funds for churches, that is not only insanely inaccurate, but it’s hurting the poor. The president respects the wall between church and state, but he does want to knock down the wall that separates the poor from effective programs.”

Others note that Towey cleaned house when he took over the faith-based office last February, removing staffers more concerned with politics than the poor.

Towey recalled a recent gathering in Memphis with bishops and pastors of the Church of God and Christ. “If you did a straw vote in that room President Bush would lose very badly. But that wasn’t why I was there. I was there because these are the people who are in touch with the poor and because they are interested in building [their] capacity, getting technical assistance, and being considered to provide services like other groups. Why can’t they do job training? Why can’t they help with low-income housing? They have the contacts, the confidence of the people, and that counts for something.”

Lynn agreed with Towey that it is “ridiculous” to require a soup kitchen run by “Saint John’s” to remove the word “Saint” from its sign, but he sees the Faith-Based Initiative as a solution in search of a problem. For example, said Lynn, “Lutheran Social Services and Catholic Charities have been getting huge amounts of government funds for years, but they don’t discriminate in hiring or proselytize. They play by the rules.” In contrast, the Bush approach amounts to “funding religious groups with government funds.”

A key point of contention: Should religious groups using federal funds be permitted to discriminate against those of different faiths in their hiring decisions? “Nobody’s trying to force the Catholic church to hire women priests, but why in the world should a Presbyterian be discriminated against in a [taxpayer supported] Baptist-run soup kitchen?” said Lynn.

The Faith-Based Initiative is more than legislation. Offices to promote outreach to faith-based groups now exist in the Departments of Health and Human Services, Justice, Labor, and Housing and Urban Development. Thirty million dollars in grants to assist faith-based and community groups build the capacity to compete for federal money and administer programs will be distributed through the “Compassion Capital Fund.” And, said Towey, the president will soon announce a list of “dos and don’ts” designed to help both faith-based groups and government officials work through the thicket of church-state issues that arise when a religious entity provides government-supported social services.

As he guides the faith-based initiative through its constitutional and ideological minefield, Towey has one significant advantage: People like him.

One prominent Democrat expressed skepticism about the administration’s approach to faith-based programs, but not about Towey: “He’s a warm and committed guy -- no doubt about it.”

“Jim has a deep sense of commitment and a track record: He’s been out there,” said Hacala.

“Jim has a passion for the poor -- that’s what has led him to the work he does and that passion has helped keep the Faith-Based Initiative on track despite the partisan and ideological difficulties,” said John Carr, secretary of the U.S. Bishops Office of Social Development and World Peace.

The esteem in which he’s held should serve Towey well; he’s going to need all the friends he can get.

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is jfeuerherd@natcath.org

Related Web sites

Americans United for Separation of Church and State

Faith-Based and Community Initiatives

National Catholic Reporter, October 11, 2002