Follow the Money

Follow the Money

The Christian right’s comeback has been fueled by Bush Administration grants.


Five years ago the Christian right was in a tenuous position. Its standard-bearer, the Christian Coalition, was under investigation by the IRS and the Federal Election Commission, and many of its state chapters were nearing collapse. Its lead organizers were fleeing so fast that one former field director called the organization “defunct.” Groups such as the Family Research Council and Concerned Women for America, undergoing their own leadership transitions, had not yet risen to take the coalition’s place. The movement had staked nearly everything on the drive to impeach Bill Clinton, and after that effort collapsed, its leaders projected a palpable sense of gloom. Paul Weyrich, the master coalition builder who had inspired Jerry Falwell to build a “moral majority” in America, wrote a Dear Friend letter that resounded with defeat. “I no longer believe that there is a moral majority,” he wrote in February 1999. “I do not believe that a majority of Americans actually shares our values.” He declared that the right had lost the culture war and that America was becoming “an ever-widening sewer.” He encouraged activists to give up, to quarantine themselves from this infectious immorality, “to drop out of this culture, and find places…where we can live godly, righteous and sober lives.” Weyrich’s letter sparked enormous controversy on the Christian right, but many saw it as the harbinger of a new evangelical separatism, marked by a retreat from political life.

Now, five years later, thanks to George W. Bush, the Christian right is on top of the world. Bush has not only bucked up the movement by ceding huge swaths of his domestic and international policy to this lobby, from his efforts to block abortions and gay marriage to his expenditure of significant political capital to support abstinence education, church-based social services and socially conservative judges. He has also revived the movement by injecting tens of millions of federal dollars directly into the coffers of the Christian right’s grassroots organizations, while at the same time starving their most vigorous political opponents of funds–singling out family planning and AIDS organizations for special punishment. While these groups receive a steady diet of financial audits, investigations and outright defunding, the President has turned his faith-based initiative into what the Rev. Eugene Rivers of Boston calls “a financial watering hole for the right-wing evangelicals.”As Weyrich told the conservative Christian magazine World shortly after Bush took office, “The Bush administration came along just in time to save many of these pro-family organizations. Four more years of a Gore administration–of being on the outside–and I think a lot of them wouldn’t have made it.”

It was Weyrich’s old running buddy, Richard Viguerie, the direct-mail guru who helped forge the religious right as a political force, and Howard Phillips, a former Nixon official who went on to head the Conservative Caucus, who first launched a campaign to “defund the left” in 1981. Viguerie and Phillips and their coalition of some eighty right-wing organizations went after groups concerned with core liberal issues–from women’s rights to civil rights and the environment–that were also important elements of the Democratic base. Their targets included the Audubon Society, the Urban League, Planned Parenthood and other organizations suspected of using federal funds to “subsidize liberal antifamily values.” “Our opposition receives almost 70 percent of its funds from the government,” said Viguerie in 1982. “We want to stop that.” Viguerie and Phillips battled for a series of rule changes to accomplish their aims throughout the Reagan years, many of which were rebuffed, but some of which, such as the Mexico City Policy (now commonly called the global abortion “gag rule”), became government policy. This drive to defund liberal institutions was revived in the mid-1990s by the conservative true believers of the Gingrich revolution, in conjunction with think thanks such as the Heritage Foundation, though their flood of bills went nowhere.

The Bush White House has picked up where Viguerie and Gingrich left off–though with far greater success. When Bush political adviser Karl Rove was asked by The New Yorker‘s Nicholas Lemann how he defined the Democratic base, Rove responded, “someone with a doctorate.” And so, according to the ruthless logic of Rove’s “strategery” shop, mainstream scientific, professional and policy organizations, whose constituencies tend to lean Democratic, have been removed from influential federal advisory positions and replaced by ideologues. The American Medical Association no longer advises US delegates to UN summits on children’s issues; Concerned Women for America does instead. Experts from the Center for AIDS Prevention Studies at the University of California, San Francisco, no longer sit on the presidential AIDS advisory council; they have been replaced by a former beauty queen who lectures on abstinence and an antigay evangelical barnstormer from Turning Point ministries. Screening by the American Bar Association of judicial nominees has been replaced by advice from the far-right Federalist Society.

The Administration has used prosecutions, financial audits and obscenity investigations against organizations bucking its policies or protesting them too publicly. Greenpeace, for example, a strong critic of Bush Administration environmental policy, became the target of federal prosecutors, who used an obscure nineteenth-century law to hold the entire organization criminally responsible for an act of civil disobedience by two of its members. Labor unions, which have lobbied hard against Bush’s economic policies, were targeted with new financial reporting rules so byzantine–and so far beyond what is required of corporations or not-for-profits–that a federal judge stayed their implementation. This pattern is particularly evident when it comes to Bush policies that were designed to please the Christian right. After Planned Parenthood and two sex-education groups, SIECUS (the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States) and Advocates for Youth, launched a privately funded “No New Money” campaign to oppose federal spending on abstinence education, all three groups received multiple federal audits.

Fifteen of the country’s most prominent AIDS organizations, meanwhile, had their finances investigated by the federal government after they joined in a protest of Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson at an international AIDS conference. And two HIV-prevention groups serving the gay community, San Francisco’s Stop AIDS and Washington’s Us Helping Us, were hit with audits and obscenity investigations that lasted for more than a year. Though Stop AIDS was exonerated by federal investigators, who found that even its most explicit HIV-prevention programs conformed with “currently acceptable behavioral theories,” the group learned in June that it would no longer receive federal funds. Nor would some two-thirds of the AIDS agencies the federal government had previously funded to do community prevention work–many of them outspoken critics of Bush.

Head Start program directors received a harsh warning letter–and a federal financial inquiry–after they raised their voices against Administration plans to restructure the preschool program, changes that would open the door for church groups to administer local Head Starts. “We agree that they have the right to audit us, since we receive government funds,” says James Wagoner, president of Advocates for Youth. “But what does it mean when the audit mechanism can be used selectively and politically?”

According to Kay Guinane, author of an OMB Watch report that documents several of these incidents, it’s extremely unusual for federal audit powers to be used in such a targeted way, or to be triggered by policy disagreements. Guinane notes that organizations in sync with Administration policy have not faced financial audits, even when they appeared to be in open breach of the law. A board member of the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), which received $600,000 to educate parents about school choices available to them, publicly announced that he’d use the funds to lobby the Pennsylvania legislature to subsidize home-schooling parents. While any nonprofit may use private funds to lobby, it’s illegal to use public funds in this way, Guinane says, but, she notes, “that hasn’t triggered an audit” of BAEO.

Family planning groups have borne the brunt of this defunding effort. International Planned Parenthood, long a target of the Christian right (the Family Research Council describes it as a “leftist organization” engaged in an “assault on religion” and the promotion of “rampant sexual promiscuity”), lost $12 million a year when Bush reinstituted the Mexico City Policy, which denies funding to any organization that even takes a pro-choice position in public policy debates. Though Congress had approved the funding in a bipartisan vote, Bush withheld $34 million in 2002 from the UN Population Fund after Christian right groups inaccurately claimed that it supported coerced abortions in China. The following year Bush defunded a consortium that provides HIV prevention and reproductive health to refugees in conflict-torn nations, justifying his decision with the same false claim.

When I asked Janice Crouse, a senior staffer at Concerned Women for America, what she saw as the biggest family-values victories under George W. Bush, she listed two items: his stepped-up activity against sex trafficking and his effort to “follow the money.” “One of the things that have been a problem for us is that the radical nongovernmental organizations are so well funded,” she said. “They know how to get grant money, they know the political structures and they are unified in their purpose to achieve reproductive services worldwide. We have been able to say, ‘Where is this money going?’ and we have been able to follow the trail. Tracing the money and insisting that money go to groups that support the Administration’s values and policy positions is vitally important. And we’ve made a lot of progress.”

Indeed, Bush’s campaign has been bolstered by similar efforts on the part of conservative activists. The American Enterprise Institute recently teamed up with the Federalist Society to launch NGO Watch, an effort to discredit, and ultimately defund, enemy NGOs. On its list of targets? The ACLU, Human Rights Watch, the Audubon Society and, of course, Planned Parenthood.

As Janice Crouse indicated, defunding such organizations is only part of the Christian right’s financial equation; the movement is also determined to funnel federal money to groups that support conservative family values. And its campaign has made advances on this front as well, especially through Bush’s abstinence-only programs, international AIDS plan and faith-based initiative. Jim Towey, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, told me that he finds any allegations of political opportunism in federal grant-making decisions offensive. “That was a very sexy charge,” he said, “but I don’t see the proof.”

The proof, in fact, is ready to hand. Pat Robertson’s Operation Blessing–despite having recently been investigated by the State of Virginia for misusing relief funds to haul equipment for Robertson’s for-profit diamond mining firm–was one of the first organizations to receive a faith-based grant. Robertson scored $500,000, renewable for three years, for a total of $1.5 million. The money pays for Operation Blessing to offer technical assistance to smaller faith-based outfits so they can compete for federal dollars of their own–and given that Robertson has disparaged several religious faiths as “aberrant” and insisted they not be considered for federal support, he’ll likely use the $1.5 million to leverage grants for like-minded evangelicals. Chuck Colson–who had legal troubles of his own stemming from Watergate–was another significant beneficiary, through his evangelical organization Prison Fellowship Ministries, which was chosen by the faith-based office as one of only four national partners for a $22.5 million workplace re-entry program for ex-offenders. No direct funding from the faith-based office has gone to a single non-Christian religious organization, whether Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist or Sikh.

The bulk of the first round of grants issued by the President’s emergency AIDS plan has gone to Christian relief agencies such as Catholic Relief Services, World Vision, Habitat for Humanity, Opportunity International and the Salvation Army. And that list could tilt toward the Christian right in the next round, since Prison Fellowship Ministries, Campus Crusade for Christ, Samaritan’s Purse and other conservative evangelical organizations have applied for future funds.

Another funding stream has already taken that path. Bush has more than doubled the federal abstinence budget during his tenure, and he’s used the money to support the grassroots infrastructure of the religious right. The Tri-County Right-to-Life Education Foundation in Ohio received $611,000 in 2001 and 2002, for example, and Metro Atlanta Youth for Christ, whose goal is “reaching the young people of metro Atlanta with the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” has received federal grants during the Bush years totaling $455,000. By my count, Bush has sent more than $7 million in abstinence dollars to such overtly Christian organizations, and he’s sent another $6.1 million in grants–some as large as $800,000–to “crisis pregnancy centers,” which counsel young women not to abort. These abstinence grants have taken small, volunteer-run organizations and turned them into substantial institutions; one crisis pregnancy center in Boston, A Woman’s Concern, received a $488,000 grant that allowed the group to bump its staff up from two to twelve. (By contrast, one lone federal abstinence grant has gone to a Planned Parenthood clinic during Bush’s reign, for $127,000.) “Basically, they have created an industry,” says SIECUS spokesperson Adrienne Verrilli.

These patterns appear even more intentional when you look at who hands out the money. The Department of Health and Human Services responded to a Freedom of Information Act request by providing a list of independent experts the agency tapped to review grant applications from 2001 to 2003 for one of the most significant federal abstinence funding streams, known as SPRANS. The list is revealing. While it does include some state public health officials, it lacks any nationally respected experts on sexuality education and pregnancy prevention, whether from the Kaiser Foundation, the Alan Guttmacher Institute, Planned Parenthood or prestigious universities. Instead it includes nine representatives of Christian evangelizing outfits such as Summit Ministries and the Turning Point. The list also includes multiple representatives from some of the most politically influential Christian-right lobby groups in the nation: the Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America, the Christian Coalition, the Traditional Values Coalition, the Heritage Foundation, even Weyrich’s Free Congress Foundation. It likewise features Congressional family-values operatives such as House Republican aide Roland Foster, who has used his perch as a Governmental Reform subcommittee staffer to instigate audits of AIDS organizations and AIDS researchers. The Bush Administration has effectively turned over tens of millions of public dollars to the Christian right to distribute as it sees fit.

OMB Watch has called the Administration’s assault on liberal nonprofits a “death by a thousand cuts.” The accompanying federal windfall for the Christian right could mark the rebirth of a movement by a thousand grants. In late 2001, after Pat Robertson stepped down as head of the Christian Coalition, Christian-right leader (and former presidential candidate) Gary Bauer told the Washington Post, “I think Robertson stepped down because the position has already been filled. [Bush] is that leader right now.” Like so many effective movement leaders, he’s proved to be an excellent fundraiser as well.

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