Bully Pulpit

Recruiting Help From Fat-Cat Political Interests And Sectarian Lobbies, Bush Escalates Crusade For Increasingly Troubled 'Faith-Based' Initiative

Since unveiling his "faith-based" initiative in January, President George W. Bush has attempted to fend off criticism by sticking to a simple message. His plan, Bush says, would award tax dollars to religious groups to provide social services, but would not fund religion itself.

In June, the president got a little off message.

"Oh, there are some in our society who are skeptical about funding faith," Bush said in a speech at a Habitat for Humanity building site in Tampa. "I hear it all the time in the halls of Congress we can't fund faith-based organizations. If that's the case, are they willing to eliminate the line item for programs such as Habitat for Humanity in the budget?"

Bush's remarks raised more than a few eyebrows. It was unusually candid for the president to acknowledge his intentions to spend billions of tax dollars to as he put it "fund faith," after months of saying the exact opposite.

The president's error was not limited to a frank admission about his initiative's real goals. Bush also misled listeners about his plan's benefits for groups like Habitat for Humanity.

Habitat for Humanity representatives indicated after the Bush speech that current law gives the group all the leeway they need, and they didn't see any reason for change. Millard Fuller, the charity's founder and president, told The Washington Post that he's concerned the faith-based initiative could disrupt the "balance" between religion and government.

Despite the president's political blunders, the Tampa speech was just one of several actions taken by the White House in a major new offensive on behalf of the faith-based initiative. With his tax cut approved by Congress and an education package heading for passage, Bush and his allies have launched a drive to push their controversial initiative forward including recruiting help from powerful political interests and influential religious groups.

On May 20, Bush kicked off the campaign with a high-profile appeal to the Roman Catholic Church, an important lobbying force in Washington and a key voting bloc in American elections. As he delivered the commencement address at the University of Notre Dame, Bush rededicated himself to promoting the faith-based plan.

Bush chose the most widely recognized Catholic university in the nation to reflect the importance the president places on Catholic voters, who supported Al Gore by 3 percentage points in the last election. Bush apparently saw the venue as the ideal location for a speech about his support for religiously grounded social services.

Quoting revered Catholic figures such as Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day and Knute Rockne, Bush described his faith-based effort as the "third stage" in the nation's "war on poverty."

"The War on Poverty established a federal commitment to the poor," Bush said. "The welfare reform legislation of 1996 made that commitment more effective. For the task ahead, we must move to the third stage of combating poverty in America. Our society must enlist, equip and empower idealistic Americans in the works of compassion that only they can provide."

Bush also lashed out at his initiative's detractors.

"Some critics of this approach object to the idea of government funding going to any group motivated by faith," Bush said. "But they should take a look around them. Public money already goes to groups like the Center for the Homeless and, on a larger scale, to Catholic Charities. Do the critics really want to cut them off?"

Opponents of the plan said the president's remarks were misleading.

"The president badly misrepresented the facts," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "Religiously affiliated groups that get public aid now are required to follow strict church-state rules. Bush wants to scrap those safeguards and allow tax-funded church groups to proselytize families in need. He wants to permit publicly funded employment discrimination and discontinue accountability. By comparing apples and oranges, Bush is only adding to the confusion surrounding this plan."

Catholic supporters of the president gave his remarks a warm reception. Robert George, a Princeton professor and advisor to Bush, told the National Catholic Register that the president's vision is appealing to Catholic voters.

"What Bush is, in effect, saying is that 'I am a John Paul II Republican pro-life, pro-family, pro-poor,'" George said.

What Bush was saying about concern for the poor, however, may be quite different from what he was doing. Just a week after the president was declaring a new phase in the war on poverty, many leaders of charities were disparaging Bush's follow-through on the issue.

The president's budget and tax cut plan, they noted, included generous benefits for the wealthiest Americans, but rejected a provision to provide $90 billion in breaks and incentives to aid charities. This occurred despite Bush's campaign pledges to the contrary. In addition, by revoking the estate tax, charities will be deprived of nearly $6 billion a year, which is currently generated through bequests.

Many wondered why a president who talks so frequently about charitable aid to poor families would abandon budget measures created for their benefit.

Kenneth Gladish, executive director of YMCA of the USA, told The Washington Post, "On the one hand, the administration and leaders in Congress talk about how absolutely central the service of community organizations is, but on the other hand, there's far less consideration and devotion than we'd hope would be the case."

This criticism was generally overlooked by the news media, as Bush waged a photo-opportunity campaign for the faith-based scheme. After his message at Notre Dame, he launched a series of high-profile events on the issue.

On May 22, Bush spoke to clergy and other leaders of the Hispanic Faith-Based Organizations Community at the White House. In his speech, Bush took a dismissive attitude toward constitutional concerns.

"I hope the Congress does not get caught up in the stale, old process argument of the legalisms involved with encouraging organizations of faith to help people in need," Bush said.

That same week, Bush traveled to Ohio to speak at the Our Lady of Angels-St. Joseph Center in Cleveland. Once again, the president emphasized the importance of his faith-based plan and the role of religion in his life.

"It is an incredible honor to be the president of a nation of faith," Bush said. "It's hard to describe what it's like to travel our country and have literally hundreds of people walk up and say, 'Mr. President, I pray for you every day.'"

Bush was not, however, welcomed with open arms by everyone in Cleveland. Across the street from the church hosting the speech, 500 protestors had gathered, many with signs that read, "We have faith, but not in Bush," and "Talking God, Working for the Devil."

Bush's renewed political rhetoric on behalf of faith-based funding will soon be matched with substantive big-bucks support for the initiative.

Enter Michael S. Joyce.

Through his efforts at the Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee, Joyce developed a national reputation in conservative political circles. Though he's not a household name, National Review once called him the "chief operating officer of the conservative movement."

Under Joyce's leadership, the Bradley Foundation financed scores of causes and think tanks. Joyce is perhaps best known for his instrumental work on behalf of the Milwaukee private school voucher program, which would probably not have been created were it not for his efforts.

In May, Joyce announced he would leave the foundation to start two new organizations devoted exclusively to supporting the Bush faith-based initiative Americans for Community and Faith-Centered Enterprise, which will lobby on behalf of the initiative, and the Foundation for Community and Faith-Centered Enterprise, which will serve as an educational organization.

John J. DiIulio Jr., head of Bush's faith-based office, heralded the creation of the groups, telling the Weekly Standard that Joyce will be creating the "intellectual infrastructure" for the broader initiative.

Joyce has already expressed a great deal of optimism. He's proud of his ties to wealthy donors. "I can promise you we won't have any trouble [raising funds]," Joyce told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

While the White House may be getting a boost from wealthy allies, there's just as much activity at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Supporters of the faith-based initiative in the House of Representatives, led by Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.), have also renewed their efforts to pass the "Community Solutions Act" (H.R. 7), a White House-approved package that includes "charitable choice" grants and contracts for churches.

Watts introduced the legislation March 21. Since then, the bill has produced sporadic interest. It has attracted a few powerful members as co-sponsors, including House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), but few others have lined up to endorse the measure.

In addition, one of the first House hearings on the legislation featured DiIulio getting grilled to the point of speechlessness by Rep. Robert Scott (D-Va.) on the question of whether beneficiaries of government assistance could be proselytized at publicly funded faith-based institutions.

The next hearing, on May 23, generated even more controversy when a leader of one of President Bush's favorite faith-based groups made insensitive comments about people of Jewish faith.

John Castellani, executive director of Teen Challenge International, a Christian drug treatment group, was invited to speak on the issue of efficacy of religious social service providers before the House Government Reform subcommittee.

During the hearing, Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.) asked Castellani if Teen Challenge hires non-Christians as employees. Castellani said, "No." However, during later questioning, Castellani was asked if the group takes non-Christians as clients. He said yes, and then boasted that some Jews who finish his Teen Challenge program become "completed Jews."

The phrase is sometimes used by fundamentalist Christians to refer to Jewish people who convert to Christianity. It's considered offensive to many Jewish groups because it suggests Jews are "incomplete" unless they believe in the divinity of Jesus.

Castellani may have added to the controversy during an interview with the Associated Press. "In a sense, it's a compliment," he said of the "completed Jews" reference. "They're not a Christian, they're still a Jew. They've just found another part of themselves. I thought I was being kind."

Bush and supporters of his faith-based initiative have pointed to the Teen Challenge program as a model of success. The president visited the group's facilities during the campaign, and DiIulio has told reporters that Teen Challenge would be eligible to apply for funding under the president's plan.

Jewish groups and other critics of faith-based funding said the Castellani comments spoke volumes about the dangers associated with Bush's faith-based initiative.

"They engage in activities aimed at bringing [participants] to Jesus," said Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism. "That's fine, but it shouldn't be done with government money."

Meanwhile, others in the House have indicated that White House missteps have cost the plan dearly. Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) recently told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that it's "basically up to the administration to get it together if they want it passed."

Sensenbrenner's assessment came despite pressure from Vice President Dick Cheney to get the bill moving in the House Judiciary Committee.

"I told him there were legal problems involved and I didn't think the administration had done its homework in broadening its base so that it had broad bipartisan support," said Sensenbrenner, who chairs the committee.

But Sensenbrenner caved in to the White House after a closed-door negotiating session between administration representatives and House GOP leaders.

On June 28, after some minor changes were made to H.R. 7, the House Judiciary Committee voted to approve the bill. The action represents the first major hurdle cleared by the proposal and sets the stage for a floor vote before autumn.

If the initiative does pass the House, the measure would still have a long way to go before reaching Bush's desk for a signature. The Senate remains deeply divided on the legislation, as Democrats and Republicans alike have expressed reservations about the president's plan.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), for example, said he is concerned that the initiative could lead to publicly funded religious groups that would evangelize families in need.

"Many of these people have the best of intentions, but they are seeking to advance religious interests," Specter told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "I have grave reservations about it."

As a result of the lingering doubts, the Senate's chief proponent of the Bush plan, Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), introduced a scaled-back bill in March. The "Savings Opportunity and Charitable Giving Act" (S. 592) promotes charitable donations through a range of new tax credits and individual development accounts, but it does not include the controversial charitable choice language.

Santorum initially indicated the president's plan had little immediate hope, telling The New York Times on May 23, "I feel that someday we'll move something forward [on charitable choice], but right now this is a hot button issue."

Santorum has since backed off from those comments. On June 6, the Senate Judiciary Committee hosted a hearing on the faith-based initiative. Santorum addressed the committee, telling his colleagues, "When we feel the time is ripe...we are going to go forward."

Officials at the president's own denomination apparently hope that time never comes. The Rev. Eliezer Valent\xedn Casta\xf1\xf3n, speaking on behalf of the General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church, delivered a blunt message of opposition to the Bush plan.

"Charitable choice clearly contradicts the minimum requirements set forth by our church as to what must be in place before a religious group accepts tax dollars in order to provide social services," Casta\xf1\xf3n told the Senate committee. "We believe that charitable choice is not the right way to help the needy nor is it the best way to foment healthy church-government relations."

The testimony from Bush's church underscores a serious problem for the White House. Bush, DiIulio and other proponents of the faith-based initiative have done little to placate the concerns of many religious leaders. Instead, opposition to the plan has grown in correlation with knowledge of its details.

This has been particularly true among religious conservatives. One of the most significant setbacks the White House suffered came when Religious Right leaders and other fundamentalists expressed reservations and sometimes, outright opposition. The trend continues.

In May, Star Parker, president of the Coalition on Urban Renewal and Education and a leading African-American conservative, published an essay in USA Today urging Bush to "keep Uncle Sam out of churches."

"The Bush administration's faith-based initiative...is our latest proof that politicians are great entrepreneurs when it comes to finding ways to expand the scope of government and their own power over our lives," Parker said. "In the best scenario, it will only waste money. In the worst, it will be destructive to our nation.... I respect President Bush, but he is dead wrong on this one."

Meanwhile, David C. Gibbs Jr. and David C. Gibbs III, attorneys for the Christian Law Association, prepared an analysis for Jerry Falwell's National Liberty Journal in which the Religious Right lawyers strongly criticized the initiative.

"Using government funds to support faith-based welfare ministries will not work," they said. "Fundamentally, the government will always control what it pays for." The Gibbs' analysis added that public funds would "become addictive for the ministries" and jeopardize "the unique spiritual component that has made these programs so successful."

Even the Baptist Messenger, the newspaper of Oklahoma's Southern Baptists, published an essay opposing the plan. The Messenger, which is published by Rep. Watts' denomination, ran a piece from Pastor Alan Day, of Edmond, Okla., which said Baptists like Bush's positive attitude toward religion, but are suspicious of his initiative.

"Baptists thinkers have long memories," Day said. "We remember when we were forced to pay for the work of churches whose theological perspectives we did not share.... We would be ashamed to kneel at the feet of Caesar and request, or demand, funding for the Lord's work."

While many in the religious community are focused on defeating the initiative, others who are hostile to church-state separation are beginning to rally behind it. The Salvation Army and the Catholic hierarchy, for example, offered endorsements of the Bush plan in June. Watts welcomed the support, calling the endorsements "a significant achievement."

Religious leaders are divided on the issue, in large part because of lingering confusion about the plan. Instead of clearing up ambiguities, the White House appears to be making things worse.

On June 7, in little-noticed committee testimony, the Bush administration told Congress that "faith-based" groups cannot include religious activity in their programs if they are publicly funded.

Carl Esbeck, a high-ranking Justice Department attorney representing the White House, appeared before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution. During the hearing, Esbeck was asked if religious organizations would be allowed to take money under the "faith-based initiative" and still sponsor religious activity.

Esbeck said, "No."

Rep. Scott asked Esbeck, " Under the current charitable choice law, can you or can you not be subjected, voluntarily, to sectarian worship during the program?" Esbeck responded, "Within the government-funded program you should not be subjected to worship."

Esbeck's remarks represented a major departure from the Bush administration's past stance and would rule out government aid for favorite Bush programs (such as Teen Challenge and Charles Colson's "Inner Change") that make Christianity a core component of their activities.

Opponents of the plan were left wondering what the White House's position on the issue had become.

"In the past, the president and his allies have insisted that religious groups get funding without sacrificing their religious character," said AU's Lynn. "Now Bush's people seem to be saying religious groups must drop all religious activity if they get public funds. Which is it?"

Esbeck told the Associated Press that he was talking about religious programs that receive public funding through grants. Ministries that receive vouchers, he explained, would not have to restrict their religiosity. Vouchers, however, are not part of the White House faith-based plan, leaving many to wonder exactly where the administration stood.

It's still unclear what kind of impact this new uncertainty will have in the religious community. The arguments will likely be played out in the coming weeks and months.

In the meantime, the president has no plans to stray from his larger goal. The federal government spends about $65 billion on social services annually, and Bush is determined to make a lot of it available to ministries, in one way or another.

The intensity of that commitment was clear in June when a White House official told Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper, that the administration remains completely devoted to the plan.

"There is zero retreat, zero equivocation, zero vacillation and zero postponement," the aide said.