After four years as the Bush administration’s “faith czar,” James Towey sounded both relieved and combative upon announcing his decision to leave his post and become president of a small Pennsylvania college sponsored by Benedictine monks.
“President Bush’s faith-based and community initiative is deeply rooted in America’s heartland,” Towey maintained during a press conference announcing his departure. “It’s established; it will continue to bear fruit for years and years to come. And I thank God for President Bush’s leadership on an initiative that has faced a steady headwind from day one.”
At the April 18 media gathering, Towey waved a press release from Americans United, making it clear where much of that “steady headwind” of opposition emanated from.
“I was looking today at Americans United’s press release, praising my departure and saying that I’d waged an unrelenting war against church-state separation,” Towey said. “In reality, this is the death rattle of the voices that were heard when President Bush first took office, because the wall between church and state is still standing. But the faith-based groups have been welcomed into the public square and the poor have benefited from having access to their effective programs.
“I think America’s forever changed,” Towey added. “This is one of the most important policy initiatives, and I think the presidency will be judged by it and he’ll be judged favorably.”
The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, challenged Towey’s take on the Bush “faith-based” initiative.
In the very press release Towey cited during his media briefing, Lynn noted the president has yet to persuade Congress to pass a comprehensive faith-based bill, the initiative has advanced only because of executive orders and many of the faith-based grants were used for partisan purposes that did little to help the needy.
“Towey played a key role in using the ‘faith-based’ initiative for improper partisan purposes, and he did little or nothing to see that Americans get the social-service help they need from their government,” Lynn said. “That’s a sad legacy to leave.”
As head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, Towey advocated for greater public funding of religion-based social services and for allowing those religious charities to hire and fire employees based on their religious beliefs. During his tenure, Towey aggressively sought to tamp down criticism of the initiative, often lambasting critics as “radical secularists.” (Americans United was one of those critics Towey frequently blamed.)
Lynn said Towey’s tactic of harshly criticizing those who opposed the faith-based initiative was “a tired, but annoying, strategy to defend a constitutionally suspect program.”
In his farewell messages, Towey took potshots at secular service providers. In his gathering with reporters to announce his resignation, the former aide to Mother Teresa suggested that secular service providers sometimes block religious groups from helping the disadvantaged and that they rarely study their own programs for their effectiveness.
Towey claimed that the “so-called advocates of the poor have denied them [religious social service providers] access to programs…because the roots of many of these social problems that Americans face today are spiritual in nature. And I have to say that many of the so-called protectors of the poor have never bothered to ask whether the programs they force them to enter are effective, or not.”
Not long after making those statements, Towey, in an interview with the evangelical Christian magazine, World, singled out the National Head Start Association as an example.
Towey’s departure should not be read as a Bush administration retreat on its push for the faith based initiative. Indeed, in late March, the Justice Department issued a solicitation for proposals for a “single-faith” prison rehabilitation program. The stated purpose was to “facilitate personal transformation for the participating inmates through their own spirituality or faith….” It would “match inmates with personal mentors and a faith-based community, community organization or support group at their release destination to promote successful reintegration.”
The solicitation required that all bidders submit “a letter of endorsement from their local religious organization.”
The scheme drew a quick response from Americans United. In an April 19 letter to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, Americans United said the plan is clearly on shaky constitutional ground.
Americans United argued in its letter, which was reported on by The Washington Post, that the Justice Department was showing a preference for religious programs over secular ones, for single-faith over multi-faith prison ministry programs and did not contain provisions against the use of government funds for religious purposes.
In addition, Americans United Senior Litigation Counsel Alex Luchenitser argued that the program was troubling because it seemed designed to benefit a specific charity – Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship Ministries. The solicitation listed 10 requirements, all of which mirror the features of Colson’s “InnerChange” prison program.
Mark Early, president of Prison Fellowship Ministries, told The Post that his groups was “very interested” in the Justice Department’s proposal.
AU’s Lynn, in a press statement, said the government “cannot fund a program that plays favorites among religions and uses tax dollars to pay for spiritual transformation.”
When Church & State went to press in late May, the Justice Department had not indicated what steps it would take to address its constitutionally suspect solicitation.
Earlier in the year, Bush made it clear he would not give up on his embattled program. As his presidency nears its twilight, one of Bush’s top goals – to cement the faith-based initiative into law – remains unfulfilled.
The administration has found it difficult to shepherd the scheme through Congress, because it calls for allowing religious groups to base employment decisions on their religious beliefs in federally funded programs.
The only way the president has been able to advance his controversial plan is via executive order. When Towey announced his departure, Bush lauded him, noting that 11 federal departments and agencies now have regulations that make it easier for religious groups to win federal social service grants.
The president also boasted about the $2.15 billion in public funds that flowed to religious groups in 2005. The figures are suspect. In February, a SUNY-Albany Rockefeller Institute-sponsored report showed that faith-based grants in several federal agencies had actually declined between 2002 and 2004. The study, issued by the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy, also found that overall social-service spending dropped by more than $230 million in the agencies examined.
The administration has also continued to award faith-based grants to religious and political allies.
For example, front groups for controversial South Korean evangelist Sun Myung Moon have benefited. Moon founded the Unification Church and preaches that he is the messiah sent to complete the failed mission of Jesus. He has a slew of organizations, publishes the right-wing Washington Times and has maintained cordial relations with both Bush presidencies.
In 2005, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services via its Community-Based Abstinence Education Program awarded a three-year implementation grant of $800,000 to a Moon front group called Free Teens USA. Free Teens is an organization that promotes abstinence until marriage, and its Web site includes lurid statements of teenagers and adults on the terrible consequences of engaging in sex.
The organization is headed by Richard Panzer, an alumnus of Moon’s Unification Theological Seminary and head of the American Constitution Committee, a political organization affiliated with Moon.
It is the second time Free Teens has won a grant from the Health & Human Services Department. Writing for Salon.com, John Gorenfeld noted that Free Teens won a $475,280 allocation in 2003.
The San Francisco Chronicle has noted that David Caprara, a longtime political operative in Moon front groups, was the director of the faith-based office for the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS). The CNCS operates AmeriCorps, which as the Chronicle reported, doled out $61 million to faith-based groups in 2003.
Late last year, the CNCS awarded an $80,000 grant to another group with Moon connections called Service for Peace. The group’s public records reveal that Michael Balcomb, a long-time Moon operative, is its executive director. The records also show that Service for Peace is affiliated with the Collegiate Association for the Research of Principles, a Moon group for college students.
The faith-based grants to Moon fronts are not the only ones that suggest the administration agenda is deeply mired in politics. And the politics surrounding the faith-based initiative is apparently part of the reason Bush has been unable to prod Congress into action. As it stands now, a future president, with the stroke of the pen, can reverse the faith-based initiative.
In late March, The Washington Post reported, “Under the auspices of its religion-based initiatives and other federal programs, the administration has funneled at least $157 million in grants to organizations run by political and ideological allies….”
The article, titled “Grants Flow To Bush Allies On Social Issues,” notes that during Bush’s tenure in office faith-based grants have been awarded to evangelical Christian groups supportive of the president, “including those in the African American and Hispanic communities.” According to The Post, many of the recipients of the faith-based grants “have been active Republicans and influential supporters of Bush’s presidential campaigns.”
U.S. Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.) told the newspaper that the administration’s compassionate-conservative agenda “has gone political.”
“Quite frankly,” Souder said, “part of the reason it went political is because we can’t sell it unless we show Republicans a political advantage to it, because it’s not our base.”
Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas), a long-time opponent of the administration’s religious funding scheme, said that the initiative would be viewed by history “as one of the largest patronage programs in American history.”
Large amounts of faith-based grants have wound up going to Pennsylvania, where Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), a favorite of Religious Right lobbying groups, is struggling to hold on to his seat. Polling has consistently showed Santorum trailing his Democratic challenger, state Treasurer Bob Casey Jr.
In early April, a Pennsylvania daily, The Morning Call, reported that El Shaddai Bethlehem, also called the Bethlehem Christian Training Center, had received a $300,000 faith-based grant. The newspaper noted that the group would celebrate the opening of its newly renovated building with a dinner featuring a speech by Santorum. The newspaper also reported that the state had received more than $72 million in federal grants in 2005 making it “the fifth highest total among the 50 states.”
The church’s pastor, the Rev. Marilyn Hartman, told the newspaper that the federal grant would be used only for its social service programs, such as helping prisoners find jobs.
The pastor nonetheless expressed concerns about faith-based grants being used to curry political favor, saying, “It’s sad that it’s so controversial. If it has been used to advance the agenda of a party, shame on them.”
Moderate and progressive religious and political leaders have been criticizing the administration’s faith-based initiative for many years. Increasingly conservative voices have joined the chorus of criticism.
In May, the Rev. Robert A. Sirico, a Roman Catholic priest and president of the Acton Institute, penned a commentary for his group’s Web site that lashed out at the president’s agenda.
In an article titled “Faith-Based Funding Politicizes Religion,” Sirico, a staunch conservative, cited a nonpartisan study showing that donations to both religious and secular organizations are high. He argued that religion is prospering without government largess.
“However much the government has provided since President Bush has been in office, it is a drop in the bucket as compared to the ocean of private funding available and operative,” Sirico wrote.
Sirico also argued in his column that religious organizations ultimately harm their missions by accepting government financing.
“Part of the point of separating religion from government is to protect faith against the corruptions that come from entanglements with politics,” he wrote.
“Once a religious institution comes to be favored for grants,” Sirico continued, “they can relax in their efforts to raise funds through private means. And the focus of their religious mission slowly changes.”
A month before Sirico’s column appeared, John DiIulio Jr., the administration’s first faith-based director, said the program had stalled because of demands from religious purists.
In an April 6 speech at the University of California at Berkeley, DiIulio cited a 2003 book called Of Little Faith: The Politics of George W. Bush’s Faith-Based Initiative, in explaining the initiative’s troubles in Congress.
DiIulio argued that religious pressure groups had lobbied for a law that would allow religious groups to use tax dollars “to proselytize, and giving religious nonprofits that receive federal tax dollars to deliver social services an absolute right to hire only co-religionists who espouse and practice their preferred” religious beliefs.
“The public supports equal treatment, not special treatment,” DiIulio argued. “Surveys find about three-quarters agreeing that program beneficiaries ‘should have a variety of options’ including religious providers, and that faith-motivated volunteers are ‘more caring and compassionate.’ But three-quarters also oppose public funding for religious programs that ‘only hire people of the same faith’ or require beneficiaries ‘to take part in religious practices.’”
Despite all these problems, the Bush administration shows no signs of altering its faith-based initiative.
Indeed, at the press briefing to announce his departure, Towey was asked by a reporter if Bush is still as committed to the faith-based agenda as he was when he first entered office.
Towey responded, “Absolutely.”
Towey, who will become president of St. Vincent College, added that “it’s in his heart and he will continue to work until his term is finished.…”
Recently posted on the White House’s Web site are advertisements for two workshops on how religious groups can garner faith-based grants – one in Cincinnati, Ohio, on May 12, the other in Las Vegas, Nev., on June 6.
A replacement for Towey has not yet been announced. AU’s Lynn says regardless of who heads the faith-based office, Americans United will continue to lead the battle in opposing the religious funding scheme.“The administration continues to harbor a great desire to erode the separation of church and state and to roll back civil rights protections,” Lynn said. “Our organization will remain in this fight to stop the faith-based initiative for as long as necessary.”