Bush Frantically Seeks a Legacy

In 2004, at the annual White House Correspondents Dinner, President Bush’s contribution to the evening’s entertainment was his narration of a slide show that pictured him looking around the Oval Office for weapons of mass destruction. In one of the shots, Bush is looking under some furniture and remarks: “Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be here somewhere….” Flash forward to this year’s dinner, where Bush played highlights from a number of his previous appearances. In a wise decision, he left out the WMD skit. These days, Bush is no longer concerned about whether WMDs existed in Iraq — instead, he is desperately seeking a legacy.

Team Bush is looking for anything that might belie the fact that a majority of Americans believe that President Bush will go down as one of the worst presidents in U.S. history. At this point, it appears that the search has landed him back where he started when, a week after his inauguration in 2001, Bush, surrounded by a host of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim clergy, unveiled his faith-based initiative by issuing an executive order creating the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (OFBCI). He followed that up with another executive order that eventually established Faith-Based and Community offices at 11 federal agencies.

Though Congress has never even come close to passing legislation legally enacting it, Bush’s faith-based initiative has spread its tentacles to a host of federal, state, and local government agencies — 35 governors and more than 70 mayors, both Democratic and Republican, have established programs modeled after the federal Faith-Based and Community Initiatives program.

On June 26, 2008 Bush appeared at a Washington, DC conference sponsored by the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, where senior administration officials, policymakers, and over 1,000 public- and private-sector representatives of faith-based organizations had gathered. Bush once again touted the successes of his faith-based initiative: “You’ve helped revolutionize the way government addresses the greatest challenges facing our society,” he told an appreciative crowd. “I truly believe the Faith-Based Initiative is one of the most important initiatives of this Administration.”

Two days later, during his weekly Saturday radio address, Bush again praised the faith-based initiative, talking about his “new approach called ‘compassionate conservatism’…. Because of you, I’m confident that the progress we have made over the past eight years will continue. Because of you, countless souls have been touched and lives have been healed.”

Coincidentally, on June 28, an op-ed piece by Jim Towey, the head person at the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives from 2002 to 2006, appeared in the Washington Post. Towey’s article “Who’ll Keep the Faith-Based Initiative?” also praised the achievements of the program and argued that regardless of who is elected president, the initiative should be continued and enhanced.

That same week, Ryan Messmore, the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society at the Heritage Foundation, penned a column for the Modesto Bee titled “Success of faith-based initiative proves the power of the personal.” Messmore wrote: “Those who stand in Washington, DC, typically see problems such as poverty, homelessness, and drug addiction in terms of statistics, costs, and caseloads. This view nurtures the mindset that these problems can be solved only by government programs fueled by ever-increasing spending.”

Messmore assured readers that it isn’t government that can respond to these dire situations. It is “religious and community-based organizations, which President Bush has rightly highlighted from the earliest days of his campaign right up through today …[that are t]he best expressions of this reorientation toward the local, the flexible and the personal.”

From the outset, Bush’s faith-based initiative has been rife with controversy. In the beginning, religious right leaders such as Rev. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson opposed the initiative because they thought it would funnel money to groups like the Church of Scientology and the Nation of Islam. (Falwell and Robertson later changed their minds.) There have been a number of lawsuits challenging the use of such groups in prisons. Faith-based groups have also been criticized for how they have used government money, including religious discrimination in hiring, religious proselytizing, and disregard for church-state separation.

Earlier this year, Jay Hein told the Washington Times that it was time for critics, who he called “alarmists,” to get over themselves: “‘Can a religious charity provide a social service?’ is no longer a question. The question is ‘How?'”

Hein may be best remembered for a U.S. Supreme Court case, Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). The Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare reported that in 2007, “The Supreme Court ruled in the White House’s favor that FFRF, an advocate of church-state separation, did not have the right to sue the federal government for sponsoring national conferences to promote the goals of the Faith-Based and Community Initiative, partially because the White House expenditures were not specifically authorized by Congress.”

Barry Lynn, executive director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington, DC-based watchdog group, said “As far as we’re concerned, Hein just continued to spread the Bush Administration’s misguided faith-based agenda. He seemed to have the same disregard for basic civil rights and civil liberties as his predecessors in the office. If Hein is remembered, it will likely be because his name is on a Supreme Court decision that undercuts the right of Americans to go into court and challenge misuse of tax dollars for religious purposes.”

Proof of “Outcomes?”

Frederick Clarkson, co-founder of the blog Talk2Action wrote in an e-mail interview: “Given the Rovian politicization of the grant process — an updated version of the old fashioned spoils system; dressed-up and inoculated from criticism by the term ‘faith-based’ — I would wager that a serious study would prove Mr. Bush wrong.”

According to Clarkson, “The premise at the outset of the White House Office was that religious agencies were discriminated against or otherwise disadvantaged in obtaining federal grants and contracts…[a claim that] former Faith-Based Initiative official David Kuo has acknowledged that there was no evidence to support.

“Whether coming from the point of view of warm-hearted evangelicalism, or ruthless Republican preferences for privatization of social services, the result has been the same: a diversion of federal funds from existing programs to fund inexperienced and unproved agencies for the sole reason that they were religious and almost exclusively Christian,” Clarkson added.

Documented studies continue to be pretty much non-existent. While there are many anecdotes that the president likes to pass off as proof of its success, there is no body of scientific evidence showing that faith-based organizations perform better than, or equal to, secular or government organizations providing similar services.

Ironically, Bush’s mini-campaign hyping his faith-based initiative came only days after ABC News revealed that the faith-based initiative was rewarding contracts to administration cronies. According to ABC News, “A former top official in the White House’s faith-based office was awarded a lucrative Department of Justice grant under pressure from two senior Bush administration appointees, according to current and former DOJ staff members and a review of internal DOJ documents and emails.”

ABC pointed out that a $1.2 million grant “was jointly awarded to a consulting firm run by Lisa Trevino Cummins who previously headed Hispanic outreach efforts for the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, and a California evangelical group, Victory Outreach. The grant was awarded,” ABC found, “over the strong objections of career DOJ staff who did not believe that Victory Outreach was qualified for the grant and that too great an amount of funds was going to Cummins’ consulting company instead of being spent on services for children.”

ABC News revelations were only the latest information that contradicts the president’s rose-colored view of the faith-based initiative. In his book, Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction, David Kuo, former second-in-command of the White House Office, provided an insider’s account of how the Bush White House politicized the initiative, sometimes rejected applications for federal faith-based funds because they came from non-Christian applicants, mocked leaders of the Christian Right, and betrayed the essence of the faith-based initiative’s charge to help the poor.

Kuo “confesses that he and [Jim] Towey hatched a scheme to hold faith-based conferences in congressional districts where Republican incumbents were in political trouble in the 2002 elections,” Joe Conn, of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, recently reported.

“The events would showcase the Republican candidates as friends of the disadvantaged and hold out the prospect of federal funding to clergy and charity officials. White House political operatives loved the idea. The scheme was carried out and 19 of 20 targeted GOP candidates won,” Conn wrote. In his mid-March interview with the Washington Times, Hein denied that FBCI has served as a political vehicle.

“Compassionate conservatism” and Bush’s faith-based initiative comprise a religious patronage system, the political packaging of the conservative movement’s long-term goals of limited government, privatization, deregulation, and the creation of a new social contract. “Compassionate conservatism” was “promptly abandoned in favor of tax cuts for the rich, program cuts for everybody else and out-of-control budget deficits driven by the military debacles in Afghanistan and Iraq,” the Sacramento News & Review’s R.V. Scheide recently pointed out.

With Bush scrambling in search of a legacy, it is interesting that he would turn back the clock to the early days of his Administration when his faith-based initiative appeared fresh and promising.

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. Read other articles by Bill.