Just as the White House was beginning its drive for Senate passage of the "faith-based" initiative, President George W. Bush has lost his controversial "faith czar."
In mid-August, John DiIulio announced that he is resigning as head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. He cited family and health concerns.
"I'm a big fat guy who hasn't taken care of himself," DiIulio told USA Today.
DiIulio said he misses his family (who remained in Philadelphia during his regular commutes to Washington), and he faces warnings from physicians about his 300-pound weight and the toll of a high-stress government position.
But many observers think other factors played an important role in the decision as well. In one news media interview about his pending departure, the 43-year-old professor mentioned frustration about the strong resistance to the president's plan in Washington.
"I hate the nonsense that goes on here," DiIulio groused to Cox News. "We had every possible criticism from every possible side. Left, right. All sides."
The Bush initiative's opponents said the broadly based criticism should have told DiIulio something.
Observed Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, "Most people whose ideas are criticized by 'all sides' would probably think their ideas are the problem, not that everyone else is wrong. DiIulio prefers to condemn honest disagreement as 'nonsense' and then head out of town."
The Bush initiative, which would divert federal tax dollars to churches to provide social services, has been mired in controversy since its announcement in January. Opponents from a broad range of religious, civil liberties, social work and labor groups say it would entangle religion and government, subsidize religious discrimination in hiring and subject persons in need to unwanted proselytism.
Lynn speculated that White House politics also played a part in sending DiIulio back to Philadelphia. DiIulio, a Democrat and a Roman Catholic, was unpopular with the Religious Right and its allies in the administration.
"DiIulio was left out of the loop in recent weeks as Bush Administration operatives manipulated the faith-based initiative to make it more palatable to the Religious Right," said Lynn.
DiIulio's brash style and insensitive rhetoric often left Religious Right leaders fuming. Early on, he said publicly that federal funds would not directly fund religious proselytizing, because "Bible-thumping doesn't cut it." He also chastised "predominantly white, exurban, evangelical and para-church leaders" who don't understand the needs of the inner cities, a less-than-subtle swipe at TV preachers Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and other conservatives who had expressed reservations about the Bush plan.
When DiIulio's pending resignation was announced, Falwell told the Dallas Morning News, "John DiIulio got into trouble the first day in office because he didn't know the clientele. I would hope President Bush gets someone who knows the faith-based community and doesn't leave anyone out. Anyone will be an improvement on John DiIulio."
Michael Horowitz, a conservative scholar at the Hudson Institute, told the The Washington Post that DiIulio has been "the most strategically disastrous appointee to a senior government position in the 20-plus years I've been in Washington. He has taken what could have been a triumphant issue and marched it smack into quicksand."
While DiIulio's departure may have pleased Falwell and other conservatives, it rankled some clergy who have backed the Bush scheme. The White House has made a concerted effort to use the faith-based initiative as a platform to reach out to African-American clergy and other minorities, and DiIulio has played a large role in that effort.
The Rev. Eugene Rivers, a black minister from Boston, was enraged at what he sees as an administration sell-out.
"The president's staff, behind his back, seeking to placate the white religious right, sought to undermine professor DiIulio's initiatives to bring the inner cities within the purview of the Bush administration," Rivers told the Boston Globe. "With John DiIulio's departure, the Bush administration has formally told the black and brown of the inner cities to go to hell."
Rivers told The Post the resignation "sends a signal that the faith-based office will just be a financial watering hole for the right-wing white evangelicals."
Ironically, DiIulio's Aug. 17 resignation announcement and the subsequent news media attention given to it overshadowed a long-awaited administration report on the faith-based issue.
Earlier that day, DiIulio and other White House officials had unveiled "Unlevel Playing Field: Barriers to Participation by Faith-Based and Community Organizations in Federal Social Service Programs." The report claimed that religious groups face a "pervasive suspicion" from federal officials when they apply for funding.
The document, prepared at the behest of Bush, surveyed the practices of five federal agencies -- Labor, Housing and Urban Development, Justice, Education and Health and Human Services and came to the conclusion that "excessive restrictions unnecessarily and improperly limit the participation of faith-based organizations."
Americans United analysts, however, found the report far from persuasive.
"When Bush talks about removing 'barriers' to funding religion, it's clear he wants to bulldoze the wall that separates church and state," AU's Lynn told reporters.
Bush used the "barriers" report as an opportunity to spur action on his faith-based initiative in the Senate.
In his Aug. 18 radio address to the nation, the president charged that the report shows "a government bias against faith and community-based organizations, a bias that exists even when constitutional concerns about church and state have been addressed."
He urged his listeners to lobby the Senate on the issue. "The time to act is as soon as Congress returns to work after Labor Day," said Bush. "If you agree, let your senator know if you see him or her during the congressional recess."
But the initiative's future in the Senate is cloudy. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) has promised Bush the issue will be taken up, but the Democratic leader hasn't said when.
Meanwhile, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), a supporter of the faith-based concept, is planning to draft his own bill. Lieberman considers the measure passed by the House to be deeply flawed and hopes to work out new legislation that steers clear of publicly funded religious discrimination and other contentious issues. He seems particularly concerned about potential bias against gays and religious minorities.
"I am confident," said Lieberman, "that if we work together we can pass a constructive, inclusive and constitutional bill to fully harness the enormous potential of faith-based and civic groups to help make this country a better place."
But any Lieberman attempt to require publicly funded religious groups to give up discriminatory hiring practices is sure to run into political trouble. Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.) and 18 other House members sent Bush a letter in August insisting that religious groups must remain free to employ only people who meet their religious criteria.
"I believe that if the president gives in on hiring practices for faith-based organizations, it will gut the bill and destroy it," Pitts told CNSNews.com, "because then no faith-based groups will want to participate."
While the issue percolates in Congress, Bush administration officials are working in the federal agencies to advance the faith-based agenda. The Department of Health and Human Services sponsored a two-day conference in Washington in September to review changes in federal welfare law. The role of religious groups was an item on the agenda.
According to The Post, the Rev. Walter Fauntroy, a conference speaker and former congressional representative, told the gathering, "Don't be talking about no separation of church and state. The most important thing you can do is enlist our churches to...straighten out our families."
But Fauntroy notwithstanding, people will be talking about church-state separation as the issue develops.
AU's Lynn, vowing to continue to lead opposition to the Bush initiative, said, "Taxpayers must never be forced to support religions they don't believe in."