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?

Is Bush's pet program, the faith-based initiative, becoming a political organizing tool for the Republican Party? Allow me to group together in conspiratorial fashion some disparate facts reported in the past few weeks:

  • The federal government has given out $1.1 billion in grants to "faith-based" organizations.
  • The Bush-Cheney campaign (in Pennsylvania, at least) sent out e-mails trying to identify 1,600 "friendly congregations" in that state. The Washington Post reported: "Campaign officials acknowledged that similar efforts are underway across the country as Bush seeks to take advantage of what political strategists call the religion gap: Polls show that frequent churchgoers overwhelmingly vote Republican."
  • At a meeting of some faith-based groups Jim Towey, the head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, declared that these organizations were being funded because we are in the middle of a "culture war that really gets to the heart of the questions about what is the role of faith in the public square."
  • House Republican leaders are working to pass legislation that would change IRS rules to, according to the Post, "give religious leaders more freedom to engage in partisan politics without endangering the tax-exempt status of their churches." 

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Other than the facts listed above—oh, and one more: that one of the funded groups is run by Pat Robertson—I have no evidence that the program has been overtly politicized. And I should say that from a policy perspective I actually agree with a lot of what the Bush administration has done with the faith-based initiative.

But it certainly makes one wonder, doesn't it? And it has prompted for me some memories from when I worked at the Corporation for National Service, the government agency that ran Clinton's pet program, AmeriCorps. That program was also suspected (by Republicans in that case) of being a surreptitious vehicle for Democratic Party organizing.

When the legislation creating AmeriCorps was being considered in 1993, New York Sen. Al D'Amato declared, in a private meeting of Republican senators, "What we're going to have is one hundred thousand people going out and working for Bill Clinton. They're building a grassroots organization." Phil Gramm of Texas agreed, adding that there was little difference between organizing a drive for an environmental cause and for a candidate.

When I joined the Corporation for National Service in 1995 as a senior adviser to the new CEO, Harris Wofford, the House had just turned Republican. It immediately tried to eliminate the program, arguing, among other things, that it was politicized. To prove this they pointed to the fact that one of the 400-plus groups that had gotten a grant was the lefty advocacy group called Acorn. And that was true.

But I have to say, on the inside we were obsessively focused on making sure the program didn't become politicized. Acorn was de-funded faster than you can sing "Kumbaya." I participated in grant-review sessions where the slightest whiff of political activity was counted as a huge strike against the program. Republicans who heard us talk about that simply didn't believe us, but it was true, nevertheless.

Some of this was baked into the law. Political activity was explicitly prohibited. More important, much of the money was distributed by state commissions appointed by governors, most of them Republican. Republican governors constituted one of our important constituencies. By contrast, most of the faith-based money is distributed directly by federal agencies—though, in fairness, they are supposed to be awarded through a competitive process that doesn't consider political factors.

But—and I know Republicans will find this nearly impossible to believe, too—some of our drive to depoliticize came from Clinton. He brought in Wofford, one of the most honorable men in public life, as CEO precisely because he wanted it to become more bipartisan. Wofford and I immediately engaged in "secret" negotiations with Republican AmeriCorps opponents that resulted in major compromises.

To be honest, this did not go over well with all the people in the White House. This was Clinton's program, and some political advisers didn't see why he had to be giving so much to people who clearly just wanted to kill it. Some in the 1996 re-election campaign were downright appalled when we refused campaign requests to let AmeriCorps members be used as props during campaign events. Is President Bush willing to make the same pledge?

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).

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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