Show Me The Money!: Pastor Says He’ll Trade Support For Cash

Pennsylvania pastor Luis Cortes supported Ralph Nader’s presidential bid in 2000. But these days he’s dramatically shifted political allegiances and backed George W. Bush last year.

What made the difference? Apparent­ly, it was generous funding under the “faith-based” initiative.

“I voted my self-interest,” Cortes told The New York Times recently.

The Philadelphia-based Baptist minister was unabashedly candid in describing his political realignment. In an extensive front-page story examining the administration’s efforts to funnel more tax dollars to religious social service providers, Cortes essentially admitted that 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.

It’s no accident that this largesse ended up at a Phila­delphia-based ministry. Penn­sylvania was a hard-fought state in 2004. Bush strategists had hoped to put the state in the Republican column, and Bush made numerous visits there. In the end, the effort failed, and Democrat John Kerry narrowly carried the Key­stone State.

Nevertheless, Bush had continued to court Cortes. At the June 16 Hispanic Prayer Breakfast in Washington, Bush singled Cortez out by name, calling him “my good friend.”

Still, the flow of federal dollars to Cortes’ operation underscores the political dimension of the faith-based initiative. Americans United and other groups have long argued that the Bush administration’s initiative has little to do with helping the nation’s needy. Instead, it seems geared toward buying influential votes in swing states. Cortes is just blunt enough to admit that.

Earlier this year, David Kuo, who worked in the White House’s faith-based office, blasted the initiative in a beliefnet.com column, as woefully under-funded. In that column, Kuo noted that Karl Rove and other political strategists have long seen the political benefits of the faith-based initiative.

The Times story backs up that claim, noting that 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 long-time Democrat, switched his support” to Bush in 2004. (Wisconsin was another swing state, with polls showing the state a virtual toss-up until election day.)

Beyond wooing Democratic constituencies, the administration has also funneled federal grants to shore up its white evangelical Christian base. Not long after televangelist Pat Robertson criticized the initiative during a “700 Club” segment, his Operation Blessing received a federal grant. Robertson has not criticized the plan since.

Aside from being used as a political tool, the faith-based initiative remains 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, exposed 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.”

In other news about the faith-based initiative:

• Bush has tapped an unexpected member of his cabinet to push the initiative among African-American clergy: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Although Rice spends most of her time traveling around the world on behalf of the administration, she recently took time out to meet with black pastors in Washington allegedly to discuss ways the faith-based initiative could be used to combat the spread of AIDS in African nations.

During the meeting, the pastors were asked to sign a letter endorsing the Bush scheme to fund religion. James Towey, head of the initiative, later told Religion News Service that he hopes the letter will persuade Congress to pass the Bush plan.

Under the Bush proposal, religious groups would be allowed to accept tax dollars and discriminate when hiring staff for the programs. That type of discrimination, some critics charged, will not help the African-American community.

“What angers me is the whole way they called the meeting talking about Africa and HIV and then they just sprung the letter on them,” said the Rev. Tim­othy McDonald of African American Ministers in Action. “The way it’s being promoted is that you’ll be able to get more money for your church to help with their programs, but they’re not being told that they’re signing something that condones discrimination.”