Love For Sale: Pastor Trades Endorsement For 'Faith-Based' Cash

Latino evangelical leader Luis Cortes supported Ralph Nader's presidential bid in 2000. But after four years and lots of federal dollars via the Bush administration's "faith-based" initiative, it was easy to for him to forget Nader as well as Democratic challenger John Kerry.

"I voted my self-interest," Cortes told The New York Times in describing his support for Bush's re-election effort.

Indeed, the Philadelphia-based Baptist minister was unabashedly candid in describing his political realignment. In an extensive front-page piece on the administration's efforts to funnel more tax dollars to religious social services, Cortes essentially said his vote was bought.

"This is what I tell politicians," Cortes told the Times. "You want an endorsement? Give us a check, and you can take a picture of us accepting it. Because then you've done something for brown." (Cortes, who was named earlier this year by Time magazine as among the nation's 25 most influential evangelicals, referred to himself and Hispanics in general as "brown.")

The newspaper reported that Cortes' evangelical ministry, Nueva Esperanza, is among the greatest beneficiaries of Bush's "Compassion Capital Fund," which has disbursed $100 million to a long list of religious groups trying to run social services. Nueva Esperanza has received $7.4 million to train other religious groups to operate social services and to write grant proposals.

Cortes' ministry, which describes itself as "the largest Hispanic faith-based community development corporation in the country," has received checks delivered by Bush administration officials such as Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao and former Housing Secretary Mel Martinez.

Americans United and others have long argued that the Bush administration's faith-based initiative had little to do with helping the nation's needy. Instead, Americans United has noted that the administration has offered no new funds for social service programs and has shamelessly used the initiative to court new voters. Cortes is just the latest and most blunt commentator on the administration's blatant political use of the initiative.

Earlier this year, David Kuo, who worked in the White House's faith-based office, blasted the initiative in a column, as woefully under-funded. In that column, Kuo, however, noted that Karl Rove and other political strategists have long seen the political benefits of faith-based initiative. The Times piece says millions of dollars from the Compassion Capital Fund have "gone to minorities in Democratic strongholds, like the Holy Redeemer Institutional Church of God in Christ in Milwaukee, whose pastor, Bishop Sedwick Daniels, a longtime Democrat, switched his support" to Bush in 2004.

Beyond wooing Democratic constituencies, the administration has also funneled federal grants to shore up its white evangelical Christian base. It was not long after televangelist Pat Robertson criticized the administration's "faith-based" administration during a "700 Club" segment that his Operation Blessing received a federal grant.

The administration's faith-based initiative, besides being a political tool, is riddled with constitutional and civil rights problems. As noted in the Times article, some federally funded religious social service providers have proven unable or unwilling to keep dogma out of their programs. The administration continues to argue that federal grants cannot be used to support religious indoctrination. Yet, there is very little language in the Compassion Capital Fund set-up to suggest just how the government is to ensure no recipient of federal assistance will be required to sit through a sermon.

Several kids partaking in a Christian-run after school program in Philadelphia, which had received some training from Cortes' group, revealed a strong religious bent to the program. An 11-year-old told the reporter that the program's songs "get into your heart, and you feel like God really loves you."

The Religious Right's relentless obsession with "Christianizing" the nation is moving along with help from Bush's faith-based initiative.