Is the faith-based initiative too politicized?

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
June 16 2004 11:57 AM

Keeping the Faith

Is the faith-based initiative too politicized?

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Part of the reason the program didn't get politicized is that the Republicans controlled Congress. While Wofford and I would have wanted a bipartisan program anyway—we were more national-service junkies than Clinton junkies—there were many Clintonites who went along with the bipartisan initiative largely because they had to.

By contrast, it's worth recalling the words of Bush's first faith-based program czar, John DiIulio, who complained in a memo to an Esquire writer that the White House bill managers had little interest in bipartisanship: "They basically rejected any idea that the president's best political interests—not to mention the best policy for the country—could be served by letting centrist Senate Democrats in on the issue." Why? Because they didn't have to (or so they thought).

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And that leads me to a prediction: Ten years from now we will look back and conclude that the worst thing that happened to Bush was the Republican takeover of Congress. It has allowed Bush to govern as a partisan ideologue rather than the jovial compromiser he was as Texas governor dealing with a Democratic legislature. One consequence has been that his pet program got a small fraction of the congressional scrutiny that Clinton's did.

When I was at AmeriCorps, Congress analyzed the cost of each AmeriCorps member down to the penny. That scrutiny forced some good reforms. But does anyone know the average cost to field a volunteer of a faith-based program? Does anyone know whether the faith-based programs have lowered prison recidivism or reduced addiction? Has any congressional committee audited the grant-distribution process for fairness? The General Accounting Office has not done a single report of that. The full House Government Reform Committee has held 59 hearings since March 2003 but none on the administration's central social policy initiative. A subcommittee has had some field hearings, but these have not been in order to scrutinize performance but rather to offer "faith-based perspectives on the provision of community services."

It is precisely in these circumstances that a program like this could be politicized and/or quality will decline. Many of the Bushies working on the faith-based initiative are genuinely committed to helping people and keeping the program free of political distortion. But it's just in the nature of Washington that the program will be politicized unless there are strong checks—statutory and political—and a commitment from the president to fight such warping. In a close election, the temptation of the Bush White House to exploit the faith-based programs may prove irresistible. If that's the case, we'll see just how committed President Bush actually was to the substance of helping people improve their lives through faith.

Steven Waldman is editor in chief ofBeliefnet, the leading multifaith spirituality and religion Web site.

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