Tilting at Faith-Based Windmills

Over a Year in the Life of President Bush's Faith-based Initiative

By Bill Berkowitz

It may seem like several lifetimes ago, but it was only on January 29, 2001, when President Bush unveiled a cornerstone of his domestic policy agenda—“charitable choice.” Amidst great fanfare and surrounded by Christian, Jewish, and Muslim clergy, the president unveiled his faith-based initiative, issuing an executive order creating the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (OFBCI).[1] He appointed longtime criminologist and political scientist, John DiIulio, to head up the operation.

The president’s scheme aimed at eliminating any barriers that might prohibit faith-based organizations from receiving government funds to provide an array of social services. The initiative also offered tax incentives to encourage greater charitable giving. Lewis C. Daly, from the Institute for Democracy Studies, characterized the president’s ambitious proposal as “a bold effort to transfer a sweeping range of government social services directly into the hands of America’s churches.”[2]

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s Policy Institute recently published a report titled Leaving Our Children Behind: Welfare Reform and the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community. The study described “charitable choice” as the massive “transfer of tax dollars to religious institutions…[that] often would come with no demand for fiscal accountability, no requirement that religious institutions not discriminate, and no safeguard against recipients of social services being subjected to proselytizing and other forms of coercive activity.”[3]

As originally proposed, the president’s faith-based initiative posed a major challenge to the separation of Church and State. In opposing it, Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State unequivocally declared that, “Bush's plan is the single greatest assault on church-state separation in modern American history. Funneling billions of tax dollars to houses of worship is certain to lead to lawsuits.”[4]

The proposal highlighted the president’s desire to unleash “armies of compassion” to deal with America’s social problems. And it would build his credentials as a “compassionate conservative,” a term he used repeatedly during the campaign. Stripped of alliteration, “compassionate conservatism” is the political packaging of the Right’s long-term goals of limited government, privatization, deregulation and the creation of a new social contract. The president’s initiative was an extension of the “charitable choice” provision woven into the 1996 welfare “reform” bill by then-Senator John Ashcroft, which allowed religious institutions, with little government oversight, to compete for government funds to provide welfare services.[5]

Assembling the Faith-based Team

The White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives created liaison offices in five Cabinet departments: Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Justice, Education, and Labor. In addition to the appointments of longtime “charitable choice” supporters Tommy Thompson as secretary of health and human services and John Ashcroft as attorney general, the Administration stocked the White House Office and its branch offices with seasoned veterans of the conservative movement and the Religious Right. Some of the key appointments were:

John DiIulio: In the mid-1990s, DiIulio, a Democrat, gained a measure of notoriety and a seat at the conservative policy-making table due to his hard-line position on juvenile crime. When he predicted, albeit incorrectly, that there would be a massive crime wave of “unprecedented brutality” by children and teenagers, whom he called a “generational wolf pack,” his star rose within conservative circles and the “we’re tougher on crime than you are” bunch in Congress. DiIulio resigned under fire, mostly from conservatives, in mid-summer 2001.

Don Eberly: Eberly, who served as deputy director for the Office of Public Liaison during the Reagan Administration, was named DiIulio’s deputy director. Eberly is one of the primary advocates of “civil society,” which will shrink government by handing over responsibility for the social safety net to faith-based organizations, corporate and community groups, and philanthropists. Eberly has written several books on the subject including, America’s Promise: Civil Society and the Renewal of American Culture.[6] He was also a founder of the National Fatherhood Initiative (NFI) and author of The Faith Factor in Fatherhood.[7] The NFI was founded in 1994 “to lead a society-wide movement to confront the problem of father absence.”[8] The group’s mission is to “improve the well-being of children by increasing the proportion of children growing up with involved, responsible, and committed fathers.” Wade Horn, also a founder and former president of the NFI is assistant secretary for family support in the Department of Health and Human Services.

Carl Esbeck: Prior to his appointment as head of the faith-based initiatives office in the Department of Justice, Esbeck worked with the Federalist Society’s Religious Liberties Practice Group and was the director of the Christian Legal Society’s Center for Law and Democracy.

Where’s the Beef?

Do faith-based programs really work? This critical question has been virtually overlooked in the debate over the president's faith-based initiative. While most supporters have a sheath of anecdotes at the ready, there is no solid empirical evidence that religious institutions actually perform better than secular ones. Even John DiIulio admitted that there is no proof religious programs outperform nonreligious programs.[9]

Byron K. Johnson, a University of Pennsylvania criminologist with the Center for Research on Religion and Urban Society—a think tank started by DiIulio—expressed his doubts as well. During his earlier tenure at the Manhattan Institute, Johnson had passionately argued that, “religious belief is a proven and powerful tool in combating community problems.”[10] Later, he appeared to change his mind, telling the New York Times that, “we’ve created an office out of anecdotes…. From the left to the right, everyone assumes that faith-based programs work. Even the critics of DiIulio and his office haven’t denied that. We hear that and just sit back and laugh. In terms of empirical evidence that they work, it’s pretty much nonexistent.”[11]

Dr. David Reingold of the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs is also skeptical about the so-called successes of faith-based programs. He compared the results of faith-based initiatives with school voucher programs in that both are self-selective. According to Reingold, religious institutions “are more likely to limit and filter the clientele they serve. It’s an extreme exaggeration to say that religious organizations are more effective.”[12]

In late February 2002, the Pew Charitable Trusts announced it had given $6.5 million to the Rockefeller Institute of Government (RIG), based at the State University of New York in Albany, to establish the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy (Roundtable). One of their primary tasks will be “to obtain a comprehensive, impartial body of research on… [the] complicated issues” surrounding faith-based initiatives.

Headed by RIG Director Richard Nathan, the Roundtable “will produce research on the capacity and effectiveness of faith-based social services, and on the important legal and constitutional issues surrounding government support of such activities.” The George Washington University Law School will join the Institute in the research, and Search for Common Ground, will play a “key role in the initiative’s major convening activities.”

Trouble in Faith-based Land

From the outset, many civil liberties organizations and gay rights groups expressed deep concern over the violation of the separation of Church and State and the unlimited potential for discriminatory hiring practices by many religious organizations who are fundamentally opposed to hiring gays and lesbians. But unexpected opposition to the president’s initiative came from a coterie of Religious Right leaders including the Revs. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. They were troubled that the initiative would allow organizations like the Church of Scientology, the Nation of Islam, and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness to receive government support.[13] Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said he would not touch faith-based money “with the proverbial ten-foot pole.”[14]

Barely six months into the year the Administration’s initiative had hit the skids and the president turned for help to Michael Joyce, a trusted ally in faith-based matters. During his more than 15 year tenure at the Milwaukee-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, Joyce steered the conservative foundation from relative obscurity to a big role as major patron and initiator of right-wing social policy. The Bradley Foundation has shaped the debate on social issues including school vouchers, privatization, welfare reform, and “charitable choice.” Joyce, who had at the time recently resigned from Bradley, was brought on board “to undertake a private initiative to help get this legislation through,” Bush’s senior advisor Karl Rove told the Washington Post.[15]

Joyce followed a time-honored conservative organizing strategy. He quickly founded two new organizations and set out to raise millions of dollars. He set up the Washington, DC-based Americans for Community and Faith-Centered Enterprise (ACFE) to “advocate an expansion of charitable choice, tax credits, and other means of bringing faith-centered and community solutions to social ills.”[16] US Newswire reported that the second organization, the Phoenix-based Foundation for Community and Faith-Centered Enterprise (FCFE), was intended to “study and promote policies that encourage corporations, philanthropies, private foundations and individuals to provide resources to faith-centered and community groups… [and] encourage the full recognition and the vital role such groups must play in American life and culture.”[17]

In early July, Salvation Armygate undermined these efforts to put the initiative on firmer ground. The Washington Post revealed that Karl Rove and Don Eberly had been secretly meeting for several months with officials from the Salvation Army in order to win the charity’s political and financial support for the president’s initiative. In exchange, the Salvation Army wanted a firm commitment that “charitable choice” legislation would allow religious organizations to sidestep state and local antidiscrimination measures barring discriminatory hiring practices on the basis of sexual orientation.[18]

By mid-summer, after months of in-fighting and disagreements with religious conservatives, John DiIulio resigned as director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. According to the Washington Post, DiIulio “originally hoped to serve for about six months, and health problems were making it difficult for him to continue.” He had hoped that the president’s plan would be enacted by then by Congress.[19] In late-July 2001, H.R. 7, Bush’s Faith-based Initiative, passed in the House. Speaker Dennis Hastert admitted that the “thorny” issues—read “charitable choice”—would be left for the Senate to deal with.

The Hudson Institute’s Michael Horowitz summed up the Right’s reaction to DiIulio’s resignation by telling the Washington Post that he had 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.”[20] Marvin Olasky, the so-called “godfather of compassionate conservatism,” responded with uncharacteristic restraint: “I think John is a fine professor and students will benefit from having him back in the classroom.”[21]

The ball was now in the Senate’s court, and conservative supporters were growing more disenchanted with the process. Olasky, apparently upset that the Senate would eviscerate the legislation, thus taking the “faith” out of the “faith-based” initiative, wrote an extensive early-August 2001 cover story exposing the administration’s strategy. In World magazine, the popular evangelical weekly he edits, Olasky revealed that the Administration had assured him early on that the Justice Department’s Carl Esbeck, “a master at writing vague language,” would finesse the discrimination issue and create an opening for proselytizing.[22]

Folded into H.R. 7 was a voucher provision described by Michael Barkey, president of the Center for the Study of Compassionate Conservatism, as the “faith-based initiative’s saving grace.”[23] Clients would be given vouchers that could be redeemed for goods and services at the institutions of their choosing. According to Barkey, “[v]ouchers maintain a wall of separation between the government and the service provider, reducing the likelihood of organizational dependency [on government funds] or regulatory creep. And the government doesn’t support any particular religion through a voucher plan, only enables individuals to choose where to go for assistance.”[24]

For many on the Right, vouchers seemed to be the answer. Even the Southern Baptists’ Richard Land changed his tune, calling the “voucherization” of the initiative “almost like a magic wand, [which] make[s] most of the church-state issues that are so thorny disappear.”[25]

That was Then, This is Now

Where do things stand well over a year after the unveiling of the president’s initiative? The overwhelming generosity shown by the American people since the September 11 terrorist attacks reinforced the Bush Administration’s commitment to “charitable choice.” In early November 2001, the president sent a letter to Senate leaders urging passage of the “Armies of Compassion” bill before the end of the year. He asked for legislation “that encourages and supports charitable giving, removes unneeded barriers to government support for community and faith-based groups, and authorizes important initiatives to help those in need.”[26]

While the administration’s initial goals remained firm, the initiative had been sliced, diced, chopped, and pared down. The president gave Senators Rick Santorum (R-PA) and Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) the lead role in hashing out a compromise solution.[27]

But opponents quickly responded to Bush’s letter. Americans United for Separation for Church and State once again pointed out that the “charitable choice” provisions “violates the First Amendment…. [by] undercut[ting] civil rights laws by allowing religiously based employment discrimination with tax dollars, pit houses of worship against each other in a bid for federal funding and could subject needy Americans to unwanted proselytism.”[28]

Then, in early February, Senators Santorum and Lieberman announced they had settled on a proposal—the Charity Aid, Recovery and Empowerment (CARE) Act.

Despite the “compromise,” critics of “charitable choice” were still concerned. According to an MSNBC report, in place of “charitable choice,” the new proposal “makes it clear that a religious group cannot be denied a government contract simply because it has a religious name or because it has religious art, icons, scripture or symbols on display.”

The “compromise” version opens up government grants to religious organizations, but eliminates “charitable choice,” the most controversial aspect of the president’s faith-based initiative.[29] “Charitable choice” allowed religious institutions to compete for government funds to provide a multitude of welfare services.

CARE expands tax deductions for charitable donations and, according to Church & State magazine, provides about $150 million for technical assistance to smaller charities, helping facilitate their ability to apply for federal grants. It also sets aside funding for a "Compassionate Capital Fund" aimed at developing more public-private charitable partnerships. The overall price tag for the plan is estimated at about $12 billion.

In early February 2002, Bush introduced Jim Towey, as the new director of the OFBCI. A close friend of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Towey worked on Capitol Hill and in Mother Teresa's ministry before becoming Florida's health and rehabilitative services director under Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles. Towey also founded an advocacy group called Aging with Dignity in 1996.

Towey’s appointment came more than six months after John DiIulio, citing family and health concerns, resigned as the first director of OFBCI. And, in a follow-up move, Bush de-emphasized the OFBCI by placing the agency under the wing of John Bridgeland, newly appointed head of the USA Freedom Corps.

The battle over “charitable choice,” the separation of Church and State, and government funding of religious institutions will not end with the president’s faith-based initiative. Conservative ideologues and Religious Right activists occupying key public policy positions within the Bush Administration have an enduring commitment to gut the already shredded social safety net and replace it with their version of “civil society.” With that in mind, there are likely to be more stealth, and not so stealth initiatives coming down the pike.

Bill Berkowitz is an Oakland-based freelance writer covering the Religious Right and related conservative movements. You can read his column thrice a week at Working Assets’ workingforchange.com.


[1] See Executive Order: Establishment of White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. http://www.whitehouse.gov/infocus/faith-based

[2] See Lewis C. Daly, “Charitable Choice: The Architecture of a Social Policy Revolution,” IDS Insights (September 2001), (New York: Institute for Democracy Studies), p. 1.

[3] Sean Cahill and Kenneth T. Jones, Leaving Our Children Behind: Welfare Reform and the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community (New York: Policy Institute of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, December 2001), pp. 49-50.

[4] The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, “Bush Launches Unprecedented Assault on Church-State Separation, Says Watchdog Group—Giving Tax Dollars to Churches Violates Constitution and Will Lead to Lawsuits, Says Americans United,” Americans United for Separation of Church and State Press Release, January 29, 2001. See http://www.au.org/press/pr12901.htm

[5] Cathlin Siobhan Baker, “The (Not-So) Hidden Agenda of Charitable Choice,” Religious Socialism (Spring 2000), pp. 1-5, 1.

[6] Don E. Eberly, America's Promise: Civil Society and the Renewal of American Culture, (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1998).

[7] Don Eberly, ed., The Faith Factor in Fatherhood (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 1999).

[8] See http://www.fatherhood.org/

[9] “A Stark Truth for Policy Makers: Data Lacking to Support Claims of Faith-Based Social Program Success,” American Atheists, April 25, 2001.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Bill Berkowitz, “Faith-Based Fracas,” San Francisco Frontiers, April 5, 2001, p. 14.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Mike Allen, “Bush Aims to Get Faith Initiative Back on Track: Stricter Rules to Be Added For Use of Funds by Groups,” Washington Post, June 25, 2001, p. A2.

[16] “Two New Groups Founded For Faith Based Initiative,” US Newswire, June 6, 2001.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Dana Milbank, “Charity Sites Bush Help in Fight Against Hiring Gays: Salvation Army Wants Exemption From Laws,” Washington Post, July 10, 2001, p. A1.

[19] Dana Milbank, “DiIulio Resigns From Top ‘Faith-Based’ Post: Difficulties With Initiative in Congress Marked Seven Months at White House,” Washington Post, August 18, 2001, p. A4.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Marvin Olasky, “Rolling the Dice,” World, August 4, 2001. See http://www.worldmag.com/world/issue/08-04-01/cover_1.asp

[23] Michael B. Barkey, “Vouchers: Faith-Based Initiative's Saving Grace,” Intellectual Ammunition (September/October 2001). See http://www.heartland.org/ia/sepoct01/welfare.htm

[24] Ibid.

[25] Laura Meckler, “Bill has a voucher plan; Provision got little notice,” Associated Press, August 4, 2001.

[26] George W. Bush, President's Letter on ‘Armies of Compassion’ Bill, The White House, November 7, 2001. See http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/11/20011108-2.html

[27] Ibid.

[28] “Bush Asks Senate Leaders to Move on Controversial ‘Faith-Based’ Bill, Says Charitable Donations are Down—Americans United Urges President, Congress Not to Advance Legislation That Violates Constitution,” Americans United for Separation of Church and State Press Release, November 8, 2001. See http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/11/

[29] “Charitable choice,” as noted previously, was the provision tucked into the 1996 Welfare Reform bill by then-Senator John Ashcroft.

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