chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
July 01, 2006

The Faith Based Initiative: Compassion in Action

by Jim Towey

When President George W. Bush launched his Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in 2001, the outcry from critics was immediate. “It’s political!” “He’s paying back the Religious Right!” “He’s instituting a theocracy!” “He’s tearing down the wall between church and state!”

Five years later, none of those dire predictions has turned out to be true. Federal court decisions have upheld Bush’s effort as constitutional, very few federal grants have gone to conservative social service agencies, and Democrats are among the Faith-Based Initiative’s biggest backers and beneficiaries. (Congressman Harold Ford of Tennessee and Senator Bill Nelson of Florida are among a large group of Democrats who have attended faith-based events with me.) According to one recent study, liberal African American churches have been bigger beneficiaries of the initiative than conservative ones. DAVID A. BOSITIS, BLACK CHURCHES AND THE FAITH-BASED INITIATIVE: FINDINGS FROM A NATIONAL SURVEY (Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, Sept. 2006).

Further, the initiative has produced impressive, culture-changing results. Under its leadership, some addicts are finally allowed to choose where they receive treatment, instead of being required to participate in treatment programs that have failed them in the past. Children of prisoners have found loving mentors under a new program that utilizes small churches as shepherds of these hurting children. And the Compassion Capital Fund has delivered dramatic results and challenged the federal government’s previous bias against small groups that do great works. To date, Bush has sought more than $1.3 billion to fund new faith-based and community programs, and Congress has provided $742 million, with more anticipated this year.

Just as important, the Faith-Based Initiative is taking root in the heartland of America. More than thirty governors, nearly half of them Democrats, have established faith-based offices, and more than one hundred mayors have followed suit. Florida Governor Jeb Bush has opened faith-based prisons, and although it is too early to know whether recidivism rates are lower among former inmates of these institutions, the data show that these prisons experience less violence than other state institutions. Willie Herrenton, the Democratic mayor of Memphis, has been using faith-based groups to lower recidivism rates at the local level.

These gains have not come without a fight against the champions of a different religion—those preaching a secular orthodoxy—who had ruled the public arena for decades. Before regulatory changes instituted by this administration, the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty in New York and other qualified faith-based groups had been told that they were not eligible for federal grants because of the religious names of their organizations. Others were pressured to remove crosses or Stars of David, or to change the makeup of their boards of directors, to eliminate observable ties to religion. The great irony was that these advocates of strict separation of church and state had prided themselves on tolerance when in fact they were ruthlessly intolerant of helping faith-based groups and faith- filled people to provide publicly funded services. More irony: the charities that suffered the most under the old rules were the small, minority churches that were on the front line in fighting many of society’s most difficult problems.

One of the vanguards of strict separation, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, was founded sixty years ago as Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State because of its strident anti-Catholic bias. While the group’s name has changed to be more politically correct, its anti-religious bias has not. When I left the Faith-Based Initiative’s office earlier this year, the group said that I had waged an “unrelenting war against church-state separation.”

Well, it was right about a war, but the one I fought was against those who would imprison the poor in federally funded programs that fail. From my perch at the White House, it seemed that the defenders of the status quo who routinely called for increased federal spending on social services never bothered to ask whether the groups getting the money ever delivered positive results affecting the lives of the poor. Did the addicts recover? Did the homeless find permanent housing? Did the destitute children receive quality services, or did we just throw money at them? Those questions were ignored by those who measured compassion by the size of block grants and who focused on giving more money to the same groups— e.g., the $7 billion Head Start program— without measuring effectiveness.

In establishing and implementing the Faith-Based Initiative program, Bush has been clear. He does not want church and state to become one. He has prohibited the use of federal funds to proselytize or discriminate, and groups that break these rules will lose their grants. He has made it clear that public money must go to the public purpose. But he also has opposed a different kind of religion-based discrimination—the kind that seeks to coerce a church-based organization to sell its soul and compromise its identity to receive federal funds and help more people. He has challenged the double standard that permits groups like Planned Parenthood to receive hundreds of millions in tax dollars each year while hiring according to their beliefs and tenets but prevents a faith-based program from exercising its civil rights to do the same.

Bush’s Faith-Based Initiative will carry on after he leaves office. Why? Because the American people do not fear faith, and they know that the poor are seeking a type of help that the government can never provide—love and compassion, and companionship for the journey, and services that might transform a life.

As published in Human Rights, Summer 2006, Volume 33, Number 3, p.6-7.

Jim Towey

Jim Towey was assistant to the president and director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives from 2002 to 2006. He currently is president of St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.