With compromise legislation stranded in Congress, the report card on the President’s faith-based initiative reads “incomplete.” Bush, however, has clearly succeeded on two fronts. He’s made terms like “faith-based” and “armies of compassion” part of the national vocabulary. And with faith-based liaison offices in five Cabinet departments-Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Justice, Education and Labor-he has injected seasoned veterans of the conservative movement and the religious right into important policy-making positions. Led by longtime “charitable choice” supporters HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson and Attorney General John Ashcroft, Team Bush is building its own “army” of Christian soldiers.
President Bush has invoked “faith-based organizations” as a solution to solving social problems numerous times since September 11. During his State of the Union address he pitched the USA Freedom Corps initiative and tied its success to the participation of faith-based organizations. Faith-based groups are at the core of his welfare reauthorization package. And the President’s drug war initiative depends on the unleashing of the “armies of compassion” with “compassionate coercion”-the latest twist on Marvin Olasky’s “compassionate conservatism.”
Fourteen months ago, surrounded by Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious leaders, President Bush issued the executive order creating the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (OFBCI). But the initiative’s first year was hardly triumphant as it met unanticipated opposition from the right along with predictable opposition from the left, and suffered from a dose of internal discord.
Progressives were concerned that the initiative blurred the line between church and state, while Christian conservatives, including the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, were mortified that groups like the Nation of Islam, Church of Scientology and Hare Krishnas would feed off government grants. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, claimed he wouldn’t touch faith-based money “with the proverbial ten-foot pole.” He was worried that any regulatory strings might strip the initiative of its “faith.”
The President’s faith-based initiative languished in policy purgatory for a year, but in early February, Senators Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Connecticut’s Joseph Lieberman delivered their bipartisan legislative makeover-the Charity Aid, Recovery and Empowerment (CARE) Act. 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. (“Charitable choice” was the provision tucked into the 1996 welfare reform bill by then-Senator John Ashcroft. It allowed religious institutions to compete for government funds to provide a bevy 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.
Several religious right leaders were disappointed with the compromise. “We’re very upset,” Patrick Trueman, director of government affairs for the American Family Association, told the Washington Times. “The president’s faith-based initiative was the hallmark of his administration. If he caves on that, we can’t trust him on any issue of our agenda.”