To hear President George W. Bush tell it, the "faith-based" initiative launched last year is about helping Americans in need of assistance. In repeated speeches since unveiling the controversial plan in January 2001, Bush has said his administration is committed to providing "practical help to people in need" by contracting with churches and other religious groups to provide social services.
But now evidence has come to light that the Bush administration has quietly been using the faith-based initiative to advance a two-pronged partisan agenda: helping vulnerable Republican candidates in the 2002 elections and expanding the GOP's outreach efforts to African-American voters who have long been unreceptive to the party's enticements.
To execute this strategy, the administration has been sending staffers from the White House Faith-Based Office to strategically significant areas to appear with Republican candidates. In the process, the administration is making promises to African-American community and religious leaders to spread around "faith money" made available through the initiative.
The president's plan to award public funds to ministries to perform social services has been criticized for its inherent incompatibility with the First Amendment's separation of church and state. By using the scheme for partisan ambition, however, the Bush administration raises entirely new concerns about government abuse and cynical vote-buying efforts.
In one recent example, the South Carolina Republican Party hosted a "seminar" on the initiative for African-American religious leaders. Jeremy White, the associate director of outreach at the White House Faith-Based office, who is also an African American, was present to tout the benefits of the president's plan and to explain how clergy could apply and receive grants from the federal government.
The state GOP made little effort to hide the partisan nature of the event. The seminar, after all, was part of the party's self-described "outreach" efforts. In fact, the political director of the South Carolina Republican Party personally contacted the meeting's attendees on GOP letterhead with acknowledgements and additional information on how religious groups could get tax funding through Bush's faith-based initiative.
Mixing government funding and religious services invites abuse and manipulation. It also creates a strong incentive for political leaders to advance partisan objectives by offering public funding to churches in the hopes it will translate into support at the ballot box on Election Day.
It appears Bush's White House saw the opportunity to use aid to charities for political purposes and succumbed to the temptation. Congress should recognize these scandalous activities and work to ensure this does not occur again.