Fall From Grace

Rep. Watts And GOP Congressional Allies Mount A 'Faith-Based Summit,' But Hundreds Of Clergy Profess Opposition To Bush's Religion-Funding Scheme

Since its unveiling in January, President George W. Bush's "faith-based" initiative has deeply divided Americans. Conflicts have erupted within legal, religious and even racial circles, as friends and foes have debated the wisdom of government-funded religion.

But when Bishop Marva Mitchell, of Dayton, Ohio, came to Washington, D.C., to attend a "faith-based summit" organized by the House and Senate Republican Conferences, she wasn't concerned with the gray areas of legal and theological debates, nor the blacks and whites of racial politics. Her attention was focused on the green.

"There's never been a separation of church and state," Mitchell, who represented God's Will Fellowship of Churches, told the Religion News Service. "The only thing that's been separated is us from the money."

For opponents of the Bush initiative, the bishop's apparent disregard for constitutional principles, coupled with her unfettered greed, points to some of the reasons so many have spoken out against the drive to provide public funds to private religious groups to do social service work.

The broader "faith-based" initiative is the centerpiece of a plan fostered by the Bush administration to expand so-called "charitable choice," a policy that removes safeguards that have applied to public financing of religiously affiliated social services.

Under the Bush proposal, the federal government would spend as much as $8 billion in the form of grants or contracts to religious groups to provide a variety of services to individuals and families in need, including the areas of housing, juvenile justice, job training, child care, senior citizen services and hunger relief. To help bring his ideas to fruition, Bush tapped John DiIulio, a former political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, to head the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, which will be responsible for spearheading the project.

Congressional allies of the president followed up on the Bush proposal with the introduction of the "Community Solutions Act" (H.R. 7) in March. The bill's lead sponsor, Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.), has also become the premier advocate of government-funded religion in Congress.

Much to the administration's dismay, however, the combined efforts of Bush, DiIulio and Watts have not been persuasive enough to generate significant enthusiasm for the initiative. At times throughout the spring, things got downright ugly for supporters of the scheme.

Opponents, led by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, successfully raised questions about the constitutionality of the plan, its impact on the independence of houses of worship and its effect on the religious liberties of families in need. Moreover, a month after being introduced, Watts' legislation had garnered only a handful of cosponsors on Capitol Hill, while the Senate version failed to include any charitable choice provisions at all. Even ideological allies of the White House in the Religious Right were grumbling about the details of the plan, some going so far as to recommend replacing the Bush initiative with a voucher plan.

Desperate to turn the momentum in a favorable direction, Watts worked with like-minded clergy to organize the House and Senate Majority Faith-Based Summit.

Billed as an event intended to "bring leaders from diverse denominational and religious orientations together to explore public/private partnerships and models of faith-based community renewal initiatives," the April 25 summit was held at the Library of Congress and other Capitol Hill venues.

"Working together to find new solutions to help the poor and the needy is our mission at this summit," Watts said. "Faith-based organizations should not be discriminated against simply because they are comprised of people who believe in God. They do good work, and we ought to use their talents."

Some of Congress' most powerful figures lined up to lend their support.

"Congress and the President recognize the good works of these [faith-based] groups, and we want to work with you to do even more good," House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) told attendees.

House Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) said he believes Republican control of the legislative and executive branches of government affords supporters of the faith-based initiative a unique opportunity.

"We now have a president and a Congress who recognize that groups of people across our country are harnessing the power of faith to solve pressing challenges within our society," DeLay said. "If religious groups can deliver services effectively, they should be able to compete for federal funding with secular organizations. It's wrong for government to discriminate against organizations that can effectively provide services just because those organizations are religious."

Despite some rhetoric about bipartisanship, the summit was a Republican event. When Watts announced the formation of a congressional steering committee for the gathering, all 14 members were Republicans. Speakers at summit sessions were either Republican lawmakers or representatives of the Bush White House. Similarly, organizers limited invitations to religious leaders who are already sympathetic to the initiative.

An unofficial theme at the summit was outright hostility for the constitutional separation of church and state. Watts said he believes that First Amendment principle only comes up when people "are talking about making poor people less dependent on federal government."

Bishop Carlton Pearson, who leads a ministry in Watts' congressional district, indicated that he's prepared to do away with the church-state divide altogether.

"The playing field is being leveled" by the faith-based initiative, Pearson told the Tulsa World. "We are going to remove the mythical separation of church and state."

Although press materials described the summit as an opportunity for "dialogue," it was, at best, a one-sided conversation. Organizers took care to prevent critics from even being in the same room as the summit's closed-door sessions. Each of the 400 attendees had to either be an invited guest of a Republican member of Congress or a guest of one of the groups sponsoring the event.

Kevin Schweers, a spokesman for Watts, acknowledged that the summit and the initiative have their critics, but he encouraged them to "put aside their differences and join with us in working to find new solutions to help the poor and the needy in this country."

When Schweers spoke of opponents "joining with" Watts, however, he didn't mean that literally. Religious leaders who oppose the initiative were unwelcome and were told there were no available openings at the summit.

Organizers surprised many in the media by announcing that reporters would be shut out of most of the summit as well. Reporters' access was limited to luncheon speeches. A half-hour press conference before a summit lunch break featured sermon-like addresses by Watts and allies, and reporters tossed out only three questions before participants were whisked away.

The secrecy surrounding the event and its discussions raised the ire of critics.

"What are they trying to hide?" asked Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, in a press statement. "Rep. Watts and his friends are discussing critically important federal policy on public funding of religion, yet they're only hearing from one side and they're doing it behind closed doors.

"As much as $8 billion in federal resources is at stake in the discussion," continued Lynn. "Yet no critics of the Bush 'faith-based' initiative were invited to the table. This isn't a legitimate summit; it's a carefully controlled pep rally."

While the summit was the work of Watts and the Republican Conferences, officials relied on Bishop Harold Calvin Ray, senior pastor of the Redemptive Life Fellowship Church in West Palm Beach, Fla., to help bring the event together. In fact, through his newly created National Center for Faith-Based Initiative, Ray has stepped up as a leading player in this effort, working with Watts and others to expand church-state partnerships at the national level.

Ray's increasingly prominent role was demonstrated on the eve of the summit, when the trial lawyer-turned-preacher hosted a closed-door reception attended by Attorney General John Ashcroft. In addition, at the brief press conference during the summit, Ray was the only clergyman permitted to address reporters.

For some, Watts' decision to tap Ray as the leading pastor for the summit was a disconcerting choice, considering the bishop's unabashed hostility for church-state separation.

In an interview with Charisma magazine in February, Ray said, "The separation of church and state is a fiction. The nation is the kingdom of God, period."

Ray's theology also appears to be based on the idea that Christians who share his worldview deserve special power over society. In the same Charisma interview, Ray added, "If the wealth of the wicked is to be laid up for the just, then there is some more work we need to do."

In his self-published book, Creating Wealth, Determining Destiny, Ray wrote, "God expects us [Christians] to take dominion." He added that faith-based enterprises "make an impressive march toward that goal."

Ray was not the only controversial religious leader involved in the Republicans' outreach effort. The event's luncheon was broadcast via satellite to over 40 cities nationwide thanks to financial and technical support from the Rev. Sun Myung Moon. (See "Moon Shadow," page 9).

In addition, a religious advisory panel created to help guide the summit became a point of significant controversy. The organizers' disregard for diversity drew complaints when it was discovered that of the 32 committee members, only two were women, two were Jewish and there are no representatives from other minority faith traditions, including a total absence of Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus.

The advisory committee drew additional criticism when Americans United released information on bigoted remarks that had been made by three of the panelists. (See "Faith-Based Fanaticism," page 7).

While these distractions took their toll, it was the concerted efforts of the Bush initiative's opponents that destroyed any hope Watts might have had about regaining some momentum.

On April 24, the day before the summit began, a coalition of religious, public policy and professional organizations unveiled a petition signed by over 850 religious leaders urging Congress and Bush to reject any "faith-based" funding plans that jeopardize the independence of houses of worship or fail to protect Americans from publicly subsidized religious discrimination.

The Coalition Against Religious Discrimination (CARD), an umbrella group organized by Americans United, coordinated the petition drive and collected the signatures in just a month's time. (To view the full list of signatures, visit AU's website at www.au.org. Additional clergy are still being urged to sign the joint letter.)

"These provisions would entangle religion and government in an unprecedented and perilous way," the petition asserts. "The flow of government dollars and the accountability for how those funds are used will inevitably undermine the independence and integrity of houses of worship.

"Allowing government officials to pick and choose among religions for limited government funds will foster an unhealthy competition between religions and could lead to an insidious form of political abuse," the petition continues. "Exempting government-funded religious institutions from employment laws banning discrimination on the basis of religion weakens our nation's civil rights protections for those seeking to provide assistance to those in need."

AU's Lynn joined with several other religious leaders at a Capitol Hill press conference to announce the CARD appeal.

"Never in American history has the federal government undertaken such a dangerous and unprecedented effort to commingle church and state," said Lynn, who is an ordained minister as well as an attorney. "This is a sea change without checking whether there are any holes in the new boat. We don't even have any serious peer-reviewed studies or empirical data to show that faith-based social programs work better than secular ones."

Pointing to the large number of petition signers, Lynn observed, "The significance of these voices cannot be understated. Their message should not be dismissed or ignored. These religious leaders agree that there are different paths to promoting community services, but the president's 'faith-based initiative' is a dead end."

The Rev. Henry Green, pastor of the Heritage Baptist Church in Annapolis, Md., which offers its own privately funded social services, represented the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs at the event. Green described the president's faith-based plan as "presumptuous."

"The federal government is going to 'help us' do our job better?'" asked Green, who also serves on AU's National Advisory Committee. "I thought the idea was for the government to get out of our way and let us do the job ourselves. Thomas Jefferson would be turning over in his grave about now."

The faith-based initiative got another blast from advocates of church-state separation in Congress. The same day the clergy petition was unveiled, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) hosted a Capitol Hill press conference to denounce the Bush plan. Nadler was joined by Reps. Chet Edwards (D-Texas) and Robert Scott (D-Va.) and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) at the nationally televised event, which also featured remarks from AU's Lynn and other leaders involved in the CARD petition effort.

"I have grave concerns about the constitutionality of charitable choice," Nadler said. "Religion has never needed government, and it doesn't need it now."

During the media event on the Capitol grounds, Lynn presented the clergy petition to Nadler and the other members of Congress.

While First Amendment allies in Congress were impressed by the outpouring of opposition to the Bush initiative from America's clergy, the response from Bush supporters was mixed. Some, such as Ray, dismissed the concerns raised by the signers, describing the coalition's effort as "distractive and divisive."

The significance of the project was not lost, however, on at least one well-known ally of the Bush administration. Wesley Pruden, editor of the ultraconservative Washington Times newspaper, reviewed CARD's collection of signatures and determined that "trouble's brewing" for the Bush plan.

Noting the large number of theologically conservative Baptist ministers who signed the petition, Pruden observed, "This is a protest that can't be dismissed as inconsequential, unimportant to George W.'s core constituency, or merely the complaint of soreheads. John DiIulio, the director of the faith-based initiative who regards criticism of it as something like secular heresy, will scoff at his peril. More importantly, so will his boss."

For his part, DiIulio's task of selling the Bush administration's faith-based initiative is proving more difficult than originally planned.

On April 26, the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources held a hearing on faith-based funding the first ever on "charitable choice" with DiIulio as the featured witness. It was DiIulio's first appearance before a congressional committee on the Bush proposal, and Democratic representatives questioned the former professor vigorously.

Rep. Scott, for example, grilled DiIulio on whether beneficiaries of government assistance could be proselytized at publicly funded faith-based institutions.

Though DiIulio explained that the faith-based initiative prohibited use of tax dollars "for sectarian worship or proselytizing," he could not guarantee that volunteers or privately funded employees at a religious facility would not encourage people to engage in prayer or other religious exercises.

Scott also pressured DiIulio on concerns over federally funded employment discrimination that would be permitted under the Bush plan. Yet many of Scott's questions went unanswered by DiIulio, who said he would have to respond at a later date after getting more information.

Scott was not happy with the response.

"Supporters of charitable choice have promised to invest needed resources in our inner cities," Scott said, "but it is insulting to suggest that we cannot get those investments unless we turn the clock back on our civil rights."

DiIulio's ability to speak frankly about potential pitfalls has been hampered by conflicting demands from the administration and its constituent groups. In fact, there is increasing evidence that the head of Bush's faith-based office is being pulled in a variety of different directions.

In a February speech, DiIulio told representatives from Jewish organizations that no group that engages in aggressive proselytism should expect government funding.

A representative of the National Council of Jewish Women asked him directly about this point, citing a Texas anti-drug program that seeks to convert addicts to fundamentalist Christianity, an apparent reference to a program called Teen Challenge. DiIulio was asked if this type of program would be eligible for federal funding under the Bush plan. DiIulio replied, "The answer to your question is a strong no."

In well-run religious social services, he said, "Bible thumping doesn't cut it."

That position has evolved, however, under the weight of political pressure. What was once a "strong no" has apparently become a soft maybe.

DiIulio's comments in February infuriated religious conservatives and White House allies, who pointed to the importance of their evangelical message and asked why their religious programs were suddenly going to be excluded after assurances they would not be.

In an interview with the Associated Press April 26, DiIulio said that all programs, regardless of their religiosity, should be permitted to compete for a piece of the government funding pie through grants and vouchers.

The apparent change of heart was motivated, at least in part, by the same right-wing activists who cried foul after his earlier remarks. Among those applying the pressure was Marvin Olasky, a right-wing Texas activist and author who has advised Bush on faith-based issues for several years.

"I think there was a lot of discussion and I believe John developed greater understanding," Olaksy told the Associated Press. "It's been a learning experience for all of us and I believe he's learned and I'm grateful."

On April 11, for example, DiIulio appeared at a press conference with right-wing advocacy organizations and said that groups such as Teen Challenge do excellent work and will have "as much a right to apply [for funds] as any other program."

Olasky's World magazine said the change-of-heart "came after behind-the-scene efforts that produced an agreement between Mr. DiIulio and conservative critics in several crucial areas."

Regardless of the relationship between DiIulio and initiative backers, Olasky and other advocates of a greater role for religion in social services will have plenty of other opportunities to have their voices heard in the coming months.

Indeed, while opponents of the faith-based initiative have effectively drawn public and media attention to the flaws burdening the Bush plan, the fight is far from over.

Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) recently told the Associated Baptist Press News Service that there will be additional hearings in the House on this issue, including one "field hearing" that will be held outside the Washington Beltway.

"When the Bush administration feels it an appropriate time, we will move forward with the legislation," Chabot said.

In other words, both sides can agree on at least one thing: There's a lot of work ahead.

"Those of us who oppose the Bush faith-based initiative can take pride in knowing we're having a tremendous effect," AU's Lynn said. "But we're not letting up now. The House will be considering its bill, and then the Senate will debate the same issues. In the meantime, I don't think the White House will be raising any white flags.

"I believe we're making a crucial difference," Lynn concluded, "but no one should be celebrating yet."