President George W. Bush returned to one of his favorite themes in March, launching yet another drive on behalf of his “faith-based” initiative.
Bush renewed the push for the initiative during a March 9 speech in Washington, D.C. At the same time, a new administration report was released that claims that $2.15-billion in tax aid was directed to faith-based groups for social services during the last fiscal year.
The administration was put on the defensive by a mid-February report by a non-partisan source that found that direct federal aid to faith-based organizations declined between 2002 and 2004. The report, issued by the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy, also found that overall social-service spending declined by more than $230 million in the agencies examined.
Critics cited the report as proof that the administration has slashed services for the needy and is using the faith-based initiative as a cover for its budget cuts.
During the March 9 speech, Bush again used anecdotes to support his claim that faith-based groups are more effective than secular ones. Lifting a phrase from the hymn “Amazing Grace,” he singled out Matt Enriquez, a former drug addict who attended a fundamentalist Christian Bible study program called Teen Challenge.
Noted Bush, “He was lost – and then he was found by the people at Teen Challenge. He is now going to college.”
Bush later said, “Matt is living proof. America changes not only when a soul like Matt gets saved, but the person who is involved with helping Matt also becomes a stronger and better citizen, as well.”
Americans United blasted the Bush administration for its relentless effort to steer federal funds to religious organizations, charging that the faith-based initiative undermines civil rights and civil liberties.
“The president seems to have little or no regard for the separation of church and state,” said Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. “This initiative clearly rolls back constitutional safeguards and civil rights protections that people count on.
“Bush is slashing social service spending across the board and using the faith-based initiative to divert attention from the cuts,” said Lynn. “This initiative is a scam, and I hope America’s religious leaders and the American people don’t fall for it.”
AU and other public policy organizations are especially appalled that the administration continues to press for allowing religious groups to take faith-based funding even while they discriminate on religious grounds when hiring staff.
“It is particularly deplorable that Bush boasts about rolling back civil rights protections for government employment,” Lynn said. “This initiative lets religious groups run publicly funded programs that openly discriminate in hiring on religious grounds. That’s an outrage.”
Congress has never passed the initiative. Yet Bush has implemented much of it anyway through executive orders and regulatory changes. He has ordered top federal agencies to begin steering funds to faith-based groups and even create faith-based offices. Most recently, the Department of Homeland Security was ordered to establish a faith-based office.
AU and other critics charge that far from trying to create a level playing field for faith-based groups, Bush wants to tilt the process toward favored religious groups and leaders. They note that TV preacher Pat Robertson, a prominent Bush backer, received $1.5-million in faith-based funds.
Critics also charge that the initiative has clearly been used for partisan purposes. For example, in February, James Towey, head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, spoke at a conference on the initiative for religious leaders in Pennsylvania, where U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, who is locked in a tight re-election bid, appeared via video.
Santorum told attendees that the purpose of the event “is to help you better understand how we can be of better assistance to you. There are lots of resources out there for you, and I urge you to take advantage of them.”
AU also asserted that the administration has consistently sent mixed messages about the amount of religious content allowable in tax-funded faith-based programs. During the Pennsylvania meeting, Towey insisted, “If you receive government money, you can’t preach with it.”
Bush’s comments about Enriquez, however, seem to indicate that “saving souls” is a legitimate goal for a tax-funded religious group.