The Magazine

Bush Keeps the Faith

Contrary to some reports, the president's faith-based agenda is alive and well.

Feb 18, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 22 • By JOHN J. DILULIO JR.
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OVER THE last three weeks, the Bush administration has taken important steps that, together, should advance the president's volunteer service agenda, increase public and private support for community-serving religious organizations, and make federal social welfare programs work better and cost less. First, last Thursday, President Bush announced his support for the Charity Aid, Recovery and Empowerment Act, or CARE, a Senate bill to aid charitable organizations, both religious and secular. His Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, of which I was then head, began work on the package in July, but the measure was recast last fall in response to new realities. In the wake of September 11, and as America rebounds from the recession, street-level Samaritans who mobilize volunteers, sponsor day care, run homeless shelters, lead housing rehabilitation projects, offer drug treatment, help ex-prisoners find jobs, shelter battered women, and perform other civic good works have faced growing demands with shrinking coffers. As unveiled last week, CARE would restore for two years funding for social services block grants to the states, used mainly for child care and family aid; create new tax breaks for citizens and corporations that give to charity; and encourage religious groups to serve civic purposes by protecting their right to receive public grants for social programs without having to remove religious art or symbols from the buildings where the programs are housed. Together with other recent legislation--like the human services bill signed in January, which created a mentoring program for prisoners' children--CARE advances the president's compassion agenda. It immediately attracted eight Senate co-sponsors, half from each party. Already, however, one hears assorted criticisms of CARE. Let me address two that come from the right and two from the left.

On the right, some assert that by backing CARE and, more generally, by tethering the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives to his new volunteer service initiative, the USA Freedom Corps, the president has retreated from his promise to allow small community ministries, if they so choose, to compete to administer federally funded social welfare programs on the same basis as all other nonprofit providers of those services. Not so. The faith-based agenda was always allied with national service. The president saw to it that the Corporation for National and Community Service under former Indianapolis mayor Steven Goldsmith worked closely with the faith-based office. As every study shows, the comparative advantage of local community-serving congregations (churches, synagogues, and mosques) is their ability to mobilize volunteers and work through inter-faith, religious/secular, and public/private partnerships. So, from day one, the community initiative and the broader agenda for volunteer service were linked. Another complaint about CARE from the right is that it omits a provision of the "faith bill" passed by the House in mid-July that would ostensibly have permitted faith-based organizations receiving public funds to discriminate against homosexuals in their hiring practices, overriding any state and local laws to the contrary. Well, there was a "beliefs and tenets" provision to this effect in the first draft of the House bill, but Republican leaders of the House Judiciary Committee struck it from the bill in June. Besides, check the public record. The White House consistently maintained that we should neither add to nor subtract from pertinent existing civil rights and other laws. Thus, we defended the existing rights of religious organizations to take religion into account in hiring as provided by the 1964 Civil Rights Act, as reinforced by a 1972 statute, and as reaffirmed by a 9-0 1987 U.S. Supreme Court decision. The so-called ministerial exemption afforded under current laws is limited, and never need be invoked except by religious organizations with 15 or more full-time paid employees. The vast majority of community-serving congregations have nowhere near 15 paid full-time anything, and many volunteers come from outside the congregation and even outside the faith. Meanwhile, critics on the left claim that, like the House bill before it, CARE gives faith-based organizations "special treatment" and would permit them to use public funds not only for social services, but for worship services. Untrue. All drafts of the House bill, including the final one, featured black-letter language forbidding any use of public funds for sectarian worship, religious instruction, or proselytizing. This language mirrored that in the "charitable choice" provision of the 1996 federal welfare reform bill signed by President Clinton. In 1996 as today, most people, including most religious conservatives, supported that prohibition, and even sought to strengthen it.