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Tuesday, 15 May 2012 06:49

Bush’s Faith-Based Initiative in the Age of Obama

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Less than ten days after taking office in January 2001, President George W. Bush gathered a host of religious folks at the White House and announced his faith-based initiative, the cornerstone of his compassionate conservative agenda. It became, as The Christian Science Monitor's G. Jeffrey MacDonald recently termed it, "one of the flash points of the culture wars that raged as he came to office in 2001."

However, the clashes of the Bush era culture wars pale in comparison to the enmity of Religious Right activists who denounce President Barack Obama's all-out "War On Religion." This flies in the face of the evidence since less than a month into his presidency, President Obama signed an executive order creating the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

"The goal of this office will not be to favor one religious group over another-or even religious groups over secular groups," Obama stated when announcing the new office at the annual National Prayer Breakfast. The purpose, he said, "will simply be to work on behalf of those organizations that want to work on behalf of our communities, and to do so without blurring the line that our founders wisely drew between church and state."

Bush's faith-based initiative

Bush issued executive orders establishing the White House Office of Community and Faith-Based Organizations as well as Centers for Faith Based and Community Initiatives in the Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor, Justice, Education, and Housing and Urban Development. Subsequently, six more agencies established faith-based centers, including the Department of Homeland Security, the Agency for International Development, and the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, and Veterans Affairs, as well as the Small Business Administration. Offices for faith-based initiatives were also established by many states.

Bush's faith-based initiative was initially greeted by skepticism by many on the Religious Right, including the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson - concerned that groups like the Nation of Islam, Rev. Son Myung Moon's Unification Church, or the Church of Scientology would receive government grants - and with alarm on the left by civil rights organizations and church-state separationists.

The Religious Right's fears were clearly unfounded as a November 2006 report by the Boston Globe found that 98.3% of all Bush administration grants to faith-based agencies from the Office of Faith Based Initiatives were awarded to Christian groups.

Grants to faith-based charities during the Bush years averaged over $2 billion annually with more than 1300 total awards.

As president, Bush often referenced the healing power of faith-based organizations, especially when questioned about one of the administration's anemic social safety net initiatives.

Bush's faith-based initiatives were "about the symbolic politics of it all, and riling up [the GOP] base," Rebecca Sager, a Loyola Marymount University sociologist and author of "Faith, Politics, & Power: The Politics of Faith-Based Initiatives," told the Christian Science Monitor. "It was showing you supported religious groups ... and all these wonderful things were going to happen without ... the real financial support to make that happen."

Obama Picks up Bush's faith-based baton

Although Obama's reconstituted faith-based initiative has taken a back seat to other critical issues, Team Obama has been grappling with unresolved Bush era controversies, most notably, how to establish strict guidelines for public/private partnerships between the government and faith-based organizations.

"Under Bush," Derek H. Davis, J.D., Ph.D., Director, UMHB Center for Religious Liberty?University of Mary Hardin-Baylor Center for Religious Liberty, wrote in 2010, "faith-based groups receiving government dollars were allowed to exclusively hire those of the same faith, a practice that defied traditional law and custom. Obama said in a campaign speech ... [in 2008], ‘If you get a federal grant, you can't use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can't discriminate against them - or against the people you hire - on the basis of their religion.'"

The Obama administration recently published a report that attempts, but still fails to address these core concerns about government contracting with faith based organizations.

According to Religion News Service's Adele Banks, "A new White House report ... leaves critical questions unanswered and does not resolve the issue of religious groups' ability to discriminate in hiring and firing," one of the thorniest issues of them all.

The 50-page report released in late April, "comes 18 months after President Obama issued an executive order calling for more transparency as faith-based groups work with the government to meet social needs," Banks reported.

Banks summarized key elements of the report:

-- "A faith-based organization can provide federally funded social services without removing religious art, scriptures and symbols from their facilities.?"

-- "Explicitly religious activities can't be supported by federal funds but are permitted if they are funded privately and occur at a separate time and location from programs that receive government money."

-- "Beneficiaries who object to the religious character of a provider must be referred promptly to an alternative."

Joshua DuBois, who previously directed a religious outreach program in Obama's former Senate office and holds a master's degree in public affairs from Princeton University, is the Director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. DuBois described the process of developing the new guidelines: "A diverse group of faith and nonprofit leaders proposed ways to strengthen the government's relationship with faith-based organizations in a manner that protects religious liberty and the separation of church and state, and we are glad to move these recommendations forward."

Rabbi David Saperstein, who directs the Washington office of the Union for Reform Judaism and served on the advisory council, called the new guidelines a step forward and said that he "hope[s] that the president will move expeditiously to ensure that no one is discriminated against when it comes to hiring with tax dollars."

The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, welcomed the report's safeguards, but said loopholes remain: "This guidance makes some significant improvements to the Bush faith-based initiative, but it falls far short of what it ought to do," said Lynn, who served on a reform task force for DuBois' office.

The faith-based initiative's dirty little secret

While the new guidelines may help to clarify some key concerns, there is another elephant in the room for faith-based projects: are they actually achieving positive results? This question has haunted the faith-based initiative from its very inception. There is little, if any, evidence to suggest that faith-based organizations deliver services more effectively than government or secular agencies.

"I am unaware of any legitimate academic research proving that religious organizations provide social services more effectively and cheaper than their secular counterparts or government," Rob Boston, Senior Policy Analyst at Americans United, told me in an email. "To be sure, there are plenty of anecdotes and warm, fuzzy stories out there, but these are not data."

Boston pointed out that some religious groups "attempted to cook the data to prove that their programs work": "When Americans United litigated against the late Charles Colson's InnerChange program in an Iowa prison in 2003, we had to also fight an aggressive P.R. campaign launched by the Colson group. InnerChange claimed an incredibly high success rate in helping former inmates stay straight on the outside and even released a study purporting to back this up. Many of us were suspicious. It turned out that InnerChange had fudged the data by excluding every inmate who flunked out of or left the program. Since they were left with only successes, it's no wonder the results looked so good."

Even John J. DiIulio - the first director of the faith-based office under President Bush - "was remarkably candid about this" Boston added. In his 2007 book Godly Republic: A Centrist Blueprint for America's Faith-Based Future. "Speaking of the claims made by group Teen Challenge, DiIulio wrote: ‘But this assessment does remind us that there is as yet no clear-cut empirical evidence that religious nonprofit programs that promote spiritual transformation perform as well or better than comparable faith-based organizations that do not proselytize, or than comparable nonreligious organizations.'"