TV preacher Pat Robertson, one of President George W. Bush's most reliable political allies, blasted the president's "faith-based" initiative yesterday, describing the administration's plan to provide public funding of minority religions as "appalling."
The public criticism, aired nationally on Robertson's "700 Club" television program, was startling to many considering Robertson's unwavering partisan support for the Bush administration. It also indicated the fragile coalition of groups supporting Bush's faith-based plan may already be showing signs of fraying.
"This means Bush's plan is in enormous political trouble," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "When staunch Bush allies like Robertson start jumping ship, the plan clearly appears to be sinking."
Robertson, whose comments coincided with the first day of operations for the president's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, said the Bush plan could be detrimental for churches and the government.
"I really don't know what to do," said Robertson, president of the Christian Coalition. "But this thing could be a real Pandora's box. And what seems to be such a great initiative can rise up to bite the organizations as well as the federal government. And I'm a little concerned about it, frankly."
Robertson was particularly concerned that non-Christian religious minorities he doesn't like will receive public tax dollars under the Bush plan, including Hare Krishnas, the Church of Scientology and followers of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon.
"You know I hate to find myself on the side of the Anti-Defamation League and others, but this is, this gets to be a real problem," Robertson said. "I mean, the Moonies have been proscribed, if I can use that, for brainwashing techniques, sleep deprivation and all the rest of it that goes along with their unusual proselytizing. The Hare Krishnas much the same thing.
"And it seems appalling to me that we're going to go for somebody like that, or the Church of Scientology, which was involved in an incredible campaign against the IRS," Robertson added. "I mean, they were accused of all sorts of underhanded tactics. And in Germany, because of Scientology, there's been a crackdown, essentially, on many evangelical groups that were triggered by the revulsion against some of their beliefs and practices."
Robertson was not the only religious leader expressing reservations about the Bush initiative yesterday. Joanne Negstad, president of Lutheran Services in America, told the Associated Press she has concerns that the program could lead to forced proselytizing. She added that the federally funded employment discrimination that would occur under Bush's plan "really bothers us."
Sharon Daly, vice president for social policy at Catholic Charities USA, raised a similar point, saying, "Do [the American people] think it's appropriate for government funds to be used in programs that would discriminate in their hiring? It's a very big question that needs to be discussed."
Americans United, the leading opponent of Bush's faith-based plan, believes with questions such as these burdening the initiative, Robertson won't be the last ally of the president to abandon support for the program.
"As more and more people look at the details of the Bush plan, I think you'll see a lot more criticism similar to Robertson's," said AU's Lynn. "Whether you're on the left, right or center, Bush's plan is disastrous public policy."
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization represents 60,000 members and allied houses of worship in all 50 states.
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.