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the faith-based initiative controversy
George W. Bush's first executive order as president created the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in the White House. This action expanded on the "Charitable Choice" provision, passed as part of President Clinton's 1996 welfare reform bill, that allowed smaller and more overtly religious groups to receive government funding for providing social services. [Editor's Note, 1/5/05: In 2003, faith-based social services grants totaled $1.17 billion]. Critics of Bush's action -- including some evangelical Christians -- warned that it will lead to the entanglement of the church and the state, hurting both. Supporters said that the president is reversing years of discrimination against religious groups. Offering their views here are: Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals; Stanley Carlson-Thies of the White House Office for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives; Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention; Jim Wallis, editor-in-chief of Sojourners Magazine; E.J. Dionne, Jr., co-chair of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life; Amy Black, professor at Wheaton College; and Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy of the Interfaith Alliance.

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Richard Cizik
National Association of Evangelicals

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We believe there has to be equality of treatment toward religious social service providers in America. That is what America ought to be all about -- equality of treatment. What we believe equality of treatment means is not the preference for evangelical social service providers, but equality of treatment, so that they're treated the same as secular service providers -- equal competitors for federal dollars to be able to dispense services to the needy. That's what the faith-based initiative of this president is about. I think it's probably one of our top priorities.

So in other words, when you have a system that doesn't actually give money to any faith-based organizations in essence, it's discriminating against--

Oh, absolutely. For decades, religious service providers have been told, "You're religious. You don't qualify. You can't even compete," in spite of the fact that our institutions, our social service providers, have done the best job, according to many social scientists, in helping people. Helping the inmate who's back on the street. Helping the drunk or the derelict. Helping the unwed mother who needs help. Our social service providers have done the best job, the most effectively, at the least cost. Yet for decades, we've been told, "You don't qualify." That's simply not the American way. …

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Richard land
Southern Baptist Convention

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Faith-based initiatives. When the president announced this initiative in January 2001, what was your reaction?

My reaction was mixed. I understand why he did it. Faith-based alternatives work. In Texas, he found that faith-based rehab alternatives worked. People who went into faith-based rehab in prison didn't come back. People who were in secular rehab programs had a 50 percent recidivism rate. So he wanted to find ways to empower those programs that worked.

My concerns can be boiled down to the old saying, "Whenever you take the government shekels, sooner or later comes the government's shackles."...

You cannot have any discrimination by the government. If the government is going to off aid to faith-based groups, then there can't be any groups excluded. If the black Muslims have a faith-based drug rehab program that meets the standards of the government has for all drug rehab programs, then they have to get the same opportunity to be assisted by the government that Catholics or Baptists or Jews would get. The one thing we must never allow the government to do is to decide which faith-based groups are kosher and which ones aren't. That would be absolutely a catastrophe.

And that's happening now?

I don't think it is. But I think we have to [have] safeguards in place that it won't happen, and then there must always be a secular alternative, so that no one is ever forced to take the faith-based aid or not have the aid. ...

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Jim wallis
Editor-in-chief, Sojourners Magazine

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I've been supportive of the idea of government partnership with faith-based organizations and other non-profit organizations to do the work of fighting poverty. We've done it for years, overseas and here. I think it needs to be done.

But not only [does] it fund religion, it's got to fund results. … I don't think we should discriminate against an organization or congregation because they're religious, if they're doing good work. But government can't subsidize proselytizing or worship or religious activity. It can't. It shouldn't. It's against the law. It's bad for religion, and bad for government when government does that.

But partnering with faith-based organizations, taking away barriers to cooperation between a mayor and a city council and a synagogue or mosque or congregation, I think that can be a good thing for a society. Mr. Gore would have done something like this. Bill Clinton was doing this. Tony Blair's doing the same kind of thing. There are good ways to do it and there are bad ways to do it.

There are ways to do it that respect the separation of church and state that respects other religious minorities. All the communities are respected and respect those who aren't religious and don't want to be. Their rights have to be respected as well. To not avail ourselves of the energy and commitment and resources of faith communities over poverty is a mistake. But how to do it in a way that is consistent with our best values is something that we're wrestling with. …

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amy black
Professor, Wheaton College

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You have what we call pietistic separationists. You have those who say we need to separate church and state because the role of religion is distinctive. It's special. There's a prophetic voice for religion, and we don't want to be corrupted by the government.

In the case of the faith-based initiative, that's exactly what critics from the right were saying. They were saying, "If we take government money, there will be strings attached." And they're absolutely right. When you take government money, there are regulations and expectations. That's part of the game.

So they said, "If the government is going to tell us certain things we can do, certain things we can't do, if they're going to attach strings to this money, it's going to change the fundamental nature of who we are. It's going to change who we are. If they're going to say, 'You can't proselytize, you can't share the Gospel,' and we're all about sharing the good news with other people, that takes away who we are and what's most important to us." So that's very much the opposition to the faith-based initiative from that camp. We don't want that to happen, because it strips us of who we are as religious people.

The other side, groups like Americans United and others just say, "We don't want the government funding religion, period, end of story." They are coming from perspective of, "We don't want people to be coerced to have to follow a particular religious perspective." … I think those critics are also right to be concerned about forcing someone to listen to, be a part of a particular religious perspective, whatever that religion might be, in order to receive a benefit.

Where I think a lot of people missed what was really going on with the faith-based initiative as the president perceived it. The idea of the faith-based initiative was to allow broader choice, and to allow people more opportunities for faith-based or secular programs. There were lots of secular programs that already existed.

Another piece that I think is interesting, too, is that, as we've already talked about, many Americans are religious. So I think there's also the freedom of choice for that religious person -- that evangelical, that Catholic, that Muslim, whomever. If you're a person of faith, and your church, your synagogue, your mosque could offer a program that would help meet your needs, a social welfare program that would help you, but would come at that program from a perspective that you share, how much better would that be to be able to go through that program in a way that doesn't strip it of the things that you think are the most important?

How successful has the faith-based initiative been?

In some ways, it's still too early to measure the complete success of the faith-based initiative. On the legislative front, I think it has been somewhat of a failure. There were grand plans legislatively, and most of them fell apart for a variety of reasons. …

I think the greatest success, and the one that I think a lot of people have missed, is in the executive branch. The president has been able to do a lot through his power as the head of the executive branch to promote his faith-based initiative. The second executive order on the faith-based initiative created five Cabinet centers -- that is, faith-based centers in five departments of the U.S. government. Later, an additional executive order of the president expanded that, so that there are now a total of seven, adding the Department of Agriculture and USAID.

As that's been expanded, what's happened in those seven departments [is] there's an office in those departments which may have a couple people or a larger staff who are there to try to look at, what are the regulations in place? How are we currently implementing things that affect this particular sector of the government? How can we be more friendly and open to faith-based and community organizations? Where do we have either practices written into the law or just understandings -- they may not be written down, but everyone knows that you do not allow religious organizations to receive this money.

So there have been these audits, and these sincere, and I think very intense and very effective efforts of looking throughout these agencies and saying, "OK. Where in the Department of Labor could we be doing this differently?

Because these are executive actions, as the head of the executive branch, the president can do this without needing legislative authority.

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Rev. Dr. C. Welton gaddy
President, The Interfaith Alliance

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Stripped from all excess language, the faith-based initiative would have houses of worship -- pervasively sectarian institutions in this nation -- become the recipients of federal funds and the employees of the federal government to do social services. That is a violation of the establishment of religion clause [in the Constitution.]

Can you explain how that is a violation?

The faith-based initiative, in my opinion, is problematic -- constitutionally, politically and religiously. From the standpoint of the Constitution, it presents problems related to the institutional separation of religion and government. The faith-based initiative effectively makes houses of worship and pervasively sectarian institutions employees of the federal government. That's how they get their money.

Federal funds flow into those organizations that say, "We're going to do this work of drug rehabilitation, social service, whatever, as emissaries, as representatives, as institutions of the federal government." That's the way the federal government sees it, as well. …

Religious institutions wanting federal funds jeopardize the integrity of their freedom and identity as religious institutions, because with those federal tax dollars come federal regulations -- regulations like civil rights regulations that this society has generally applauded; regulations that have advanced public morality in our nation.

Why can't I get federal money and then discriminate in my hiring practices? Because the federal government wants to be sure that civil rights is a part of public morality in this land, and one way that is enforced is through the economy. Where the money goes, civil rights guarantees go.

So a religious institution needs to weigh whether or not it's going to accept federal funds on the basis of that. Why can't religious organizations hire whomever they please, using doctrinal conformity and ecclesiastical polity and all of that as criteria in hiring? They can -- if they retain their identity as pervasively religious institutions. But if they want to be conduits of federal funds, if they want to be a part-employee of the federal government, then they have to live with the same regulations and civil rights that everyone else lives with.

What about the argument that these organizations may provide better social services than those that were provided by the government?

I think the faith-based initiative is based on some very questionable -- I would even say false -- assumptions. The major false assumption is that religious organizations do a better job in the delivery of social services than do their secular counterparts. That generalization bears all the flaws of any generalization. It's partly right, and it's partly wrong.

Some religious organizations do a better job in social service delivery. Other times, secular organizations do a better job in the delivery of social services. …

The president has said that this money is not to go to proselytizing, but is specifically to go towards running a soup kitchen or providing drug treatment services…

The president has paid lip service to the fact that federal funds should not be used in proselytizing in overt establishment of religion-type activities. But if the goal of the faith-based initiative is to use faith as a transformative power in people's lives, then what is said is not matched by what is done. That's one issue.

The second issue is that there is almost the anticipation, if not expectation, that federal funds will go to pay for physical logistical staffing kinds of concerns. But amid the programs that result from all of that, evangelists, proselytizers who are not on those funds, who are not bound to those particular logistics, can move among the people involved, and they can proselytize all they want.

Most cynically stated, it, it's the old "wink" method which characterizes so much of what goes on in Washington. That is, "We can't fund your evangelism related to faith. However, we can buy the computers; you distribute the Bibles. We can pay for the building; you can do whatever you want to in that building."

Those who defend the faith-based initiative say that this is really an issue of discrimination, in terms of religious organizations who traditionally were not allowed to apply for federal funds, and that this is opening up the playing field to allow those who were previously denied.

Historically, religious organizations in this nation have never wanted a level playing field. Houses of worship have not wanted to be recipients of federal tax dollars, because they saw at stake in that kind of influx of public money a compromise of their basic religious integrity and identity.

I don't think you can say it too often -- that where federal money goes, federal regulations follow. It may come immediately; it may take a longer time; but the regulations are coming. There are no illustrations that show that principle is untrue in our history.

So a house of worship that wants to do its ministry in the name of God, in the name of Allah, in the name of a particular Buddhist tradition, ought to have the privilege of doing that without anybody looking over their shoulder, without any regulation saying, "That can't be done."

The only way to guarantee that freedom is to maintain identity as a religious place of worship, a house of worship, a pervasively religious organization. …

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E.J. Dionne
Co-chair Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life; Washington Post columnist

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Let me ask you a couple of questions about faith-based initiative. I understand Lutheran charities, Jewish charities, a lot of these guys have received money over the last few decades. What is different about what is going on now? Are there different organizations that can accept money?

You see, I think the rise of the faith-based initiatives among conservatives reflects two very discrete interests. On the one side, I think there are a lot of conservatives, who, over a period of time, listened to liberal arguments and said, "You conservatives don't care about the poor."

A lot of those conservatives had a genuinely bad conscience about it and said, "Wait a minute. We are supposed to care about the poor, but we don't really like the way the traditional welfare state works." They sort of came upon this idea of providing social services through non-governmental institutions, including the churches.

I think there's another brand of conservative, who were most interested in the faith-based initiatives as a way of reducing the role and power of government. A lot of times these groups overlapped. But I think their motivations and hopes were quite different.

I think the other thing that's going on here is a big debate over whether the causes of poverty are primarily social, structural, and economic, or whether they are rooted in personal failures. If you listen to Bush's first inaugural address, he has some beautiful language in there where he talks about how children who are born poor are not at fault for the state of their birth. He says it better than that, actually.

But then when he goes on to talk about it, he talks more about broken families and a lack of love than he does about whether there might be some structural injustice. So there's a big argument here. Now, historically, if you look at say, at Christian progressives, they brought the two together. There's no reason, in principle, that you can't care about personal responsibility and say, yes, people ought to take care of themselves and live good lives. …

One of the fascinating things about this debate is that there are quite a few evangelicals who deeply worry that taking a dime of government money will force them to do something other than preach the full Gospel. …

If you're evangelical, you have a moral obligation to preach the Gospel. The question is, can you have religious organizations that believe … apart from that message? I think some of the historical answer is, well, yes. There are an awful lot of religious groups that deliver the food or health care or childcare, and care first about poverty, and do as much by example as they do by preaching. But some of these other certain areas, I think it's very hard to disentangle. In those areas, you really do have a church/state problem.

The one that I think is most vexed is drug treatment, where, in many drug treatment programs, the Christian drug treatment programs, if you will, have the sensible theoretical view that we're not there just to get rid of the addiction. We're there to transform the whole person. The way you transform the whole person is to create a relationship with Jesus. Once you have to relationship, you will have the strength to overcome this particular problem.

Programs like that have had success. The question is, can government go so far as to fund the program so deeply rooted in religion? I had an argument about this with a conservative evangelical friend who said, "Look. Their method is Freud. Our method is Jesus. Why should Freud get the money and Jesus not get the money?" I thought that was an interesting argument. But we still do have the First Amendment, and it raises a real question.

Stanley Carlson-Thies
White House Office for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, 2001-2002

… [Is] the whole idea is that you're not just giving money to non-profit, secular institutions, but including [religious ones]?

Yeah. Yeah, there's been a lot of talk about the un-level playing field and making it level and not to introduce a new kind of bias in which the government now goes out and says, "Well, secular groups, we're going to keep you out. If you just look religious enough then we'll give you money."

But the critical thing here is, who's doing good work? And if they're religious, that's fine. There are some rules they have to follow. But because they're religious that shouldn't exclude them. So that's one of the core ideas. ...

You hear people's concern when people say, "Oh, my God, this is all about blurring the lines between the government and church." People get really up in arms about this. What do you make of this?

... It's right in the law that an organization getting government money cannot refuse to serve somebody based on faith. They have to serve everybody without regard to faith. And it's right in the law that the money can't be turned away from a social service to be used for something like evangelizing. So the money's there to help somebody get off welfare or off drugs. If the group takes that and say, "Great, we can repair our church's roof," then they'll get in major trouble with the grant agency. …

In simple terms, tell me what President Bush is trying to do with his faith-based initiatives. What's his ultimate goal?

I think his ultimate goal is two things, actually. One of them is to improve the way the federal government serves people in need -- the range of things it does, who does it partner with, on what terms, who all gets involved, that's part of it.

One way to do that is by engaging more directly organizations that are clearly faith-based and those that are smaller, so community-based. And to do that his decision has been that some things need to be changed in the way the federal government works. So changing the way the federal government works so it can involve smaller groups and more explicitly faith-based ones as a way of improving the services that the federal government supports. …

Talk to me a little bit about the difference between what had happened in the past in terms of funding what we would define as faith-based organizations -- Catholic charity, Salvation Army, Jewish Federation -- as opposed to what's happening now. ... From what I understand, it's the first time in history that we're funding churches and house of worship directly, where in the past, we were funding a secular or non-profit wing of those groups.

This is one of the most difficult aspects of the faith-based initiative, you know, exactly what problems is it solving? I think one reason why it's very difficult is because we've had more flexible practice than the rules have been. So, there have been specific rules in some federal programs, for example, that on the face of them suggest that any organization that works for the government, gets its money, is going to be thoroughly secular in every shape and form. And there have been some interpretations of the Constitution that require that.

But then if you look out to see who the government actually has funded, you say, "But there are all kinds of religious groups that have been involved, Catholic Charities, for example, Jewish Federations. So, maybe there isn't a problem after all." ...

And there were some other organizations that just said, "Those are too restrictive. I can't fit within that. We can't fit within that. Or the only way we could fit within that would denature, take away something from the service we're providing. And so, that's not what we're going to do."

So, then I think the question becomes constitutionally and practically … are the rules under which they've been funded as restrictive as they have to be? Too restrictive? Those are the kinds of questions. And what's happened with a faith-based initiative is a rewriting of those rules. …

And who stands to benefit most from the rewritten rules?

Well, who stands to benefit most? I think you'll see a number of things are happening. One of them is, maybe the most obvious one, would be groups that had to be on the outside, because they didn't fit, now have a chance to fit. Many of those aren't flocking forward, of course because they've been very suspicious of the government and they know that some of the changes are just very fresh. And they're not across all the programs. ...

One criticism is that money that goes to faith-based organizations is being taken away from secular organizations. Now there's a discussion about whether or not they provide better or worse social services. One example is in the president's new budget. He did cut money from some secular problems related to alcohol abuse. What do you make of this criticism that he's cutting secular programs so that faith-based groups can get the money instead?

Yeah. As far as I know -- and at least as far as I hope -- there's no rule that the federal government has passed that says secular groups cannot apply for this money. Faith-based groups can. … It's all been, "Let's take away language that's excluded faith-based groups, or that's required everybody to be secular." And now it ought to be, "If you're providing whatever service we're asking for, and you can demonstrate that you do it really well, and you'll follow our rules, then you can compete for the money."

In that competitive process, yes, various groups get knocked out and new groups come in. That's happened to secular groups over the years. ... I think all that's happened here in principle is that those people that now have a chance to come to the table, include more groups that are explicitly faith-based. I will say that so far, a lot of them haven't gotten any money. And why is that? Well they're kind of fresh to the table.

In many cases they don't have the capabilities that they need to have. Not yet. And this is a trial run for them. They're figuring out the grant process, and they're finding out that all these things they thought were great turn out to not be sufficient. And next time around, a year later, they're going to come back…

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posted april 29, 2004

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