At Finish, Bush Faith-Based Initiative Gets Mixed Reviews

faith-based-initiative.JPGIn the final months of George W. Bush’s presidency, reviews are mixed on the Administration’s Faith-Based and Community Initiative, which has fundamentally altered the government’s strategy to assist America’s poor since 2001.

Amid the grumbling of critics and the glowing accolades of supporters, most observers agree that despite relatively little national media attention or general recognition by the American public, the Initiative has become so embedded in government that its impact will carry over into future administrations. In fact, President-elect Barack Obama has vowed to continue the effort in some form, with what he characterizes as improvements, in a proposed Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

The Faith-Based and Community Initiative sought to encourage more religious charities to provide services in partnership with government. Supporters say the Initiative removed discriminating barriers against religious organizations, “leveled the playing field” (to use the Administration’s own phrase) for them to receive government grants, and brought more compassionate and personalized government-funded services to children of prisoners, drug addicts, the homeless and HIV/AIDS patients.

Critics charge the Initiative was used to woo political support, violated constitutional provisions for separation of church and state, and failed to provide promised money for social programs.

What is certain is that the Initiative took hold in a fashion that went largely unrecognized.

In a February report, “The Quiet Revolution,” the White House summarized how the President, after failing to gain congressional approval, implemented the Initiative domestically and internationally by issuing five executive orders to spread its reach into virtually every government service program. The orders established the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and centers in 12 federal agencies to advance government partnerships with religious and secular nonprofits.

The Bush Administration also rewrote 16 federal rules to help faith-based organizations provide government services, provided training and assistance to more than 100,000 religious and secular grassroots organizations, reached out to these groups through regional conferences around the country, and encouraged 35 states and more than 100 cities to create offices or liaisons to religious communities, according to the February report. The White House faith-based office also arranged to set aside about $300 million in government money to finance the Compassion Capital Fund, which focuses on helping small faith-based and community organizations apply for grants and build their organizational capacity. The Administration also advanced the use of vouchers so government money could flow to even the most intensely religious organizations without violating constitutional laws separating church and state.

“One of the biggest things is that we’ve seen clearly that we can be more creative, more responsive and more compassionate when we join the strengths of government with frontline nonprofits,” said Jedd Medefind, acting director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. “Faith-based organizations are invaluable allies in any attack on need. So we have every reason to make sure they’re welcome and that they can feel that they’ll be able to preserve their distinctive character in those partnerships.”

Critics said the entrenchment of the Initiative into government operations is problematic.

“Bush set up a faith-based office in the White House and pushed lots of states to set up similar offices,” said Joe Conn, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “If these offices become a permanent part of the government, they will provide ongoing opportunities for constitutional and political mischief.”

The progress of the Initiative is highlighted in a new book entitled “To Serve the President” by Bradley Patterson, a member of the White House staff for three former Republican presidents, who cites the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives as one of three “organizational innovations” of the Bush Administration. The other two are the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and USA Freedom Corps.

No other similar chain of executive orders, in the absence of legislation, establishes “so many interlinked operating bases through the federal executive branch,” Patterson writes. He said the Office also sets up an administrative body in the White House that will be replicated in a new administration. (The Roundtable has written about this administrative advance of the faith-based effort in a 2004 report.)

“(T)he whole, now quite vast, program is entirely executive – in concept and administration,” according to Patterson’s book.

Supporters and even some neutral observers agree that the Initiative played a significant role in giving credence, visibility, and recognition to the integral role faith communities play in providing social services.

“The Bush Administration highlighted the important role faith communities play in inspiring volunteers and providing social welfare,” said Eboo Patel, a Muslim youth leader and founder of the Interfaith Youth Core in Chicago.

“We saw (the Initiative) as recognizing what was already known,” said Tom McClusky, vice president of government relations at the Family Research Council, a Washington, D.C.-based conservative Christian advocacy group.

Nathan J. Diament, public affairs director for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, said the federal effort went further, by actually removing administrative barriers that previously prevented small religious charities from participating as providers in government service programs.

The Bush Administration’s Faith-Based and Community Initiative “went a long way, to use the phrase to ‘level the playing field,'” Diament said. “They brought in a significant number of new partners by holding these conferences around the country, educating groups. It was useful in terms of enlarging the pool of partners for the government. (This is) not to say that longstanding partners weren’t doing good jobs and shouldn’t continue in their partnerships with the government, but in this context more is better, assuming that the quality is maintained.”

McClusky noted that the importance of faith-based organizations to the government was accentuated during and after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when religious groups, ready and able to react quickly with volunteers, became the most critical and effective responders to the disaster, while a government presence was scarce and lacked coordination. The pronounced role of religious organizations during Katrina resulted in greater coordination between government and religious groups to respond to future disasters, he noted. (For more on this topic, click here for a Roundtable resource page.)

Hurricane Katrina also advanced the Initiative to give religious organizations more leeway in receiving government assistance. For instance, the Bush Administration changed rules after Katrina to allow parochial schools damaged in a natural disaster to get federal aid.

“Now the government treats all institutions in need of disaster relief equally,” Diament said. “That’s very important going forward.”

The Initiative stirred its share of controversy. Critics assessed it as an imprint of Bush’s religious ideology and as a tool to chip away at the wall separating the constitutional limits of church and state. The most vibrant example was the Administration’s advancement and reinterpretation of legal provisions that allow government-funded religious organizations to base staffing decisions on employees’ religious beliefs.

When Bush was unsuccessful in convincing Congress to expand the religious hiring provisions to a cadre of government programs, his Administration changed the federal rules and issued legal opinions that allowed the hiring practice, at least on a case-by-case basis.

That stirred opposition from religious organizations, fearful that too much government intervention would infringe upon their religious liberty, and from civil rights groups.

“Separation of church and state is one of the greatest doctrines that separates us from other countries,” said Stephen Copley, a United Methodist minister, lawyer and leader of a campaign to increase the minimum wage in Arkansas. “Religious hiring rights were part of a theocracy we saw under Bush.”

Terri Schroeder, a lobbyist with the American Civil Liberties Union, agreed that the religious hiring provisions are unconstitutional. She added that the ACLU supports successful partnerships in federally funded social service programs, including those offered by religious affiliated providers.

” T he current administration has eviscerated most of the safeguards that had successfully protected the independence of churches, while also protecting the rights that all Americans have to expect equal treatment when they apply for a government-funded job or when they participate in a government-funded service,” Schroeder said. “The Bush Administration actually went out of its way to promote discrimination – and that discrimination based on religion with government dollars goes against a core American value.”

Medefind, however, defended the hiring practices, saying they are important for some faith-based organizations to retain their religious character and autonomy. Without the provisions, such groups would not partner with government to provide services.

” These groups are doing amazing work,” he said. “We’re not tapping the great services of these groups.”

Eight years of changes in how government interacts with religious organizations opened the door to scrutiny over whether the Initiative provided adequate safeguards and accountability of government spending.

A Government Accountability Office report issued in July 2006 said that government-issued guidelines to religious organizations about separating government-funded social services from religious activities were ambiguous and confusing, and some organizations appeared to violate the stipulations. The report also questioned the effectiveness of the Faith-Based and Community Initiative, saying that in fiscal year 2005, five federal agencies that helped carry out the federal effort were spending most of their allocated funds on staff salaries and benefits.

Other observers agreed that accountability was a problem for the Bush Initiative.

“The Bush Administration’s Faith-Based and Community Initiative was a very mixed program precisely because its lack of accountability evoked some public mistrust and allowed a bit of faith community misconduct,” said Robert M. Franklin, a scholar and ordained minister who is president of Morehouse College in Atlanta. “At the end of the day, I believe it did more good than harm, and many worthy people were assisted. The FBCI deserves proper credit for the laudable accomplishments – but we are disappointed by the good that might have been achieved had it been administered differently. ”

Jay Hein, former director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, adamantly defended the government oversight of funding to religious organizations in several previous interviews. Throughout his two-year stint as director, from August 2006-August 2008, Hein said his office went to great lengths to inform, educate and train faith-based organizations about the “legal do’s and don’ts” of using government money, including the prohibition against using direct government grants for religious activities.

Despite that, the White House faith-based office faced a legal challenge in a case known as Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation that charged the office with advancing religious interests and questioned its constitutionality. The case was never argued on its merits, as the Supreme Court decided in June 2007 that the taxpayers bringing the lawsuit did not have the right to challenge discretionary expenditures of the executive branch. That finding has had its own impact, in limiting the number of lawsuits alleging church-state violations in courts throughout the country. (For more on this issue, click here for a Roundtable resource page.)

Beyond the legal questions surrounding the Initiative, there were questions about the extent to which it fully responded to people in need when the Bush Administration was also reducing funding in health care, housing and benefits for the poor. A 2006 study by the Roundtable found that between 2002 and 2004, the total amount of federal spending on social services declined. While the number and share of grants made to faith-based organizations during that three-year period increased, the total dollar value of grants to religious nonprofits declined.

“We advocated through the Bush Administration that they needed to invest more in programs,” Diament said. “We advocated unsuccessfully that many of them needed more resources. You needed a bigger pie, not just re-slicing an existing pie to get at these problems.”

The February White House report said the federal government increased the funding available to faith-based groups and improved the quality of services provided since 2001. It cited increased numbers of mentors to children of prisoners, expansion of faith-based community health centers, and expanded programs and money for HIV/AIDS relief in 15 countries.

Jim Wallis, a liberal evangelical Christian who is chief executive of Sojourners and an early supporter of the Initiative, said in a July interview that the Initiative fell short of its promise for a variety of reasons: “No. 1, things weren’t funded very well. No. 2, it became a substitute for good social policy instead of an addition. And No. 3, it became very partisan, very political.”

That final complaint was often cited after David Kuo, a former deputy director of the White House faith-based office, wrote a 2006 book criticizing the Initiative as being a “political tool and failing to deliver a promised $8 billion in grants to faith-based organizations.” The White House reports that more than $2 billion in grants have been awarded to faith-based organizations.

Conn said Bush officials “shamelessly abused the office for partisan political ends.”

Copley agreed, saying, “I think Bush made it part of his partisan agenda, so Republicans would vote for him. And that was mainly Christians and evangelicals.”

Hein defended his office against accusations of political persuasion and unfilled promises in an interview in April while he still served as director.

“The President is bold about how much he cares,” Hein said. “So I get to work for a President fully committed, not wondering if he cares. He cares a lot. And then I look at Kuo and I think, ‘I don’t know what your agenda is. It’s just nothing related to what I do.'”

Congressman Mark Souder, an early supporter of the Initiative, said in an interview in May that he lost confidence in the agenda as it became more politically oriented.

“When he [President Bush] talks about it, it’s the way he started, which is, ‘Government hasn’t been serving the needs of low-income groups, especially in the inner city, and churches and faith-based groups are far more effective, and we need to get some dollars in their hands because they leverage it, and it’s just about getting the goods there.’ Is the argument economic or is it social? It’s both, and Bush has never really wavered from that. But inside the Administration, there has been bobbing and weaving. I think they tilted in the wrong direction,” Souder said.

Still, supporters and critics agree that the Administration made inroads into increasing partnerships between the government and religious charities. The disagreement comes in how those advances are viewed.

“Across the board, the concerns of government neutrality – neither favoring nor being hostile to religious institutions – have come a long way under the Bush Administration,” Diament said.

While, according to the ACLU’s Schroeder: “Sadly, the faith-based office has added little value, less accountability and a whole lot of government-funded discrimination.”

A real difference in perspective can be seen, too, in how people look to the effort’s future.

“It’s a little early to say whether the Bush faith-based initiative will have a significant lasting impact,” said Conn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “Bush failed to get his initiative through Congress and his executive orders are likely to be altered by President Obama.”

But Medefind predicts that government partnerships with faith-based organizations will grow.

“I view this as an ongoing movement,” Medefind said. “It began long before (the Faith-Based and Community Initiative) was launched in 2001, and it will continue long after we’re gone. I think what we see is a tremendous leap forward in this new approach to solving needs. I’m really hopeful that those who come after us will build upon it and extend it to achieve even greater things.”

Source:The Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy

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