Faith-Based Initiatives in the Obama Administration?

“One of the things that I think churches have to be mindful of is that if the federal government starts paying the piper, then they get to call the tune,” candidate Barack Obama told Christianity Today in response to whether he would “keep the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives open or restructure it?” The dark horse followed with this mild-mannered criticism of the Bush policy: “I want to see how moneys have been allocated through that office before I make a firm commitment [to] sustaining practices that may not have worked as well as they should have.”

In a July speech to the Eastside Community Ministry of Zanesville, Ohio, Obama pledged to overhaul and expand President Bush’s faith-based initiative were he to become the nation’s 44th president. Obama’s plan for a “Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships” would “help set our national agenda” and deal with such issues as AIDS in inner cities and climate change. “The challenges we face today — from saving our planet to ending poverty — are simply too big for government to solve alone,” Obama said. “We need an all-hands-on-deck approach.”

A few weeks after President Bush took office in 2001, he issued an executive order creating the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. One of the initiative’s major goals was the shrinking of government by farming out social safety net services to religious organizations, including many conservative Christian groups. It was also geared toward putting the final dagger into the heart of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and what was left of Lyndon Johnson’s anti-poverty projects. Team Bush also aimed to consolidate its conservative Christian base, while adding new constituencies; Black and Latino church leaders.

Over the years, Bush’s faith-based initiative doled out millions of dollars to religious groups, trained hundreds of small religious groups in the art of grant writing, awarded contracts to a host of administration cronies, and began reshaping how the federal government deals with the needs of the poor.

Despite the administration’s ceaseless touting of its “compassionate conservativism” and its desire to unleash the “armies of compassion” to deal with the nation’s social ills, Bush’s faith-based initiative never made it out of Congress; no effective legislation was passed. Team Bush was able to establish Faith-Based and Community offices at eleven federal agencies, and the initiative spread its tentacles into a host of other federal, state, and local government agencies. Thirty-five governors and more than seventy mayors, both Democratic and Republican, have established programs modeled on the federal Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, though it was rife with scandal. In short, despite the lack of congressional approval, Bush’s faith-based initiative has burrowed its way into the political landscape.

The following faith-based mistakes and blunders committed by the Bush Administration should be taken into account as Obama charts a new course:

Contracts to Cronies

Earlier this year, ABC News revealed that the faith-based initiative was rewarding contracts to administration cronies, noting that “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.”

Skirting Civil Rights Laws: Salvation Army-Gate

In early July 2001, less than six months after Bush established the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, Salvation Army-gate undermined efforts to put the initiative on firmer political ground. The Washington Post revealed that Karl Rove and longtime faith-based advocate Don Eberly had been secretly meeting for several months with officials from the Salvation Army in order to win the charity’s political and financial support for the president’s initiative. In exchange for its support, the Salvation Army wanted a firm commitment from the administration that legislation would allow religious organizations to sidestep state and local anti-discrimination measures barring discriminatory hiring practices on the basis of sexual orientation.

Marvin Olasky, one of the so-called “godfathers” of “compassionate conservatism,” was apparently so worried that the Senate would water down any faith-based legislation (thus taking the “faith” out of the “faith-based” initiative) that he wrote an extensive early-August 2001 cover story in World magazine exposing the administration’s strategy. In that story, Olasky revealed that the Administration had assured him early on that the Justice Department’s Carl Esbeck, “a master at writing vague language,” would finesse the discrimination issue and create an opening for proselytizing.

Partisan Politics: Conservatives Force John DiIulio to Resign

In an interview with Christianity Today after he resigned as the first director of the White House Office, John Dilulio, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Godly Republic: A Centrist Blueprint for America’s Faith-Based Future, was asked about the future of the faith-based initiative. While maintaining that it should continue, he acknowledged that the initiative had a decidedly “mixed legacy.”

“On the one hand, the initiative put faith-based into the popular vernacular and onto the policy agenda. … On the other hand, to quote Michael Gerson, extremists and cynics in both parties, including in the West Wing itself, have ‘turned a bipartisan effort to help the poor into a culture war debate.’”

It should be noted that Dilulio, an independent-minded academic who was pushed out of office by movement conservatives, pointed out that he was against giving government dollars to agencies with behavioral codes and Christian-only hiring policies: “If you are [suggesting] we ought to enlarge the ministerial exemption in civil-rights law to give religious nonprofits a right to discriminate against tax-funded employees on religious grounds, then I would urge caution. To level the playing field does not mean to tilt it in favor of religious nonprofits. Besides, most community-serving religious nonprofits, including ones led by Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, do not demand any such exemption or constitutional carte blanche.”

Politicizing the Office: David Kuo Exposes the Hypocrisy

In Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction, David Kuo, the former second-in-command of the White House Office, charged that the Bush White House had politicized the initiative, sometimes rejecting applications for federal faith-based funds because they came from non-Christian applicants, mocked leaders of the Christian Right, and betrayed the very essence of the faith-based initiative’s charge to help the poor.

Politicizing Grant Making: Money to Black Churches Aimed at Converting Democrats

Several meetings with Black religious leaders, part of an aggressive strategy by the Republican Party and conservative philanthropy aimed at African-American churches and, through them, Black voters — the Democrats’ most loyal constituency, led to a number of black preachers receiving faith-based grants.

After months of investigation, the Los Angeles Times reported in January 2005, that out of the more than $1.5 billion in federal funds handed out to faith-based organizations in 2003, African-American churches had received many millions while, at the same time, many African-American church leaders had publicly switched party affiliation in time for the 2004 presidential election.

The Ultimate Scam: Wade Horn Feeds his Wife

Of all the curious goings on tied to the faith-based initiative, perhaps no one exemplifies the shady side better than longtime conservative activist Wade Horn.

In early April 2007, Wade Horn resigned from his post as the Assistant Secretary for Community Initiatives at the Department of Health and Human Services, one of the most active faith-based grant making government agencies. During his tenure at HHS as the Bush Administration’s point man for welfare reform, Head Start and abstinence-only education, he was a veritable faith-based slot machine for religious organizations, including some with whom he had long standing, close relationships.

Talk to Action’s Cynthia Cooper, tracked some of Horn’s activities: In March 2007, Cooper wrote that Horn, who oversaw a budget of $47 billion, was “very kind to Religious Right organizations, including the one that he founded in 1994 with Religious Right money — the National Fatherhood Initiative in Gaithersburg, Maryland.” Horn gave “the National Fatherhood Initiative a … ‘Capacities Building’ grant in the amount of $999,534 from a program he started in his agency and called by the familiar-ringing name of the ‘Responsible Fatherhood Initiative.’”

Horn “approved the hiring of columnist Maggie Gallagher — who also worked with the National Fatherhood Initiative — “to promote marriage”; and “gave money to writer Mike McManus to support marriage promotion, while also giving money to McManus’ organization, Marriage Savers (‘a ministry that equips … local congregations to prepare for lifelong marriages …’).” Horn was, coincidentally, a founding board member of Marriage Savers.

In addition to the NFI grants, in 2006, the organization received a $2.279 million no-bid contract from Horn’s office which, according to nonprofit government watchdog OMB Watch, was part of a $12.382 million contract that runs through the year 2011, three years after the end of President Bush’s second term.

Before Horn resigned, he was handed $157 million in abstinence-only education funds to dispense, despite dubious claims, such as the notion that “abstinence programs could go beyond students, and become engaging programs for adults, as well.”

Investigative reporter Mike Reynolds told me that Horn’s wife Claudia, who founded and heads Performance Results Inc. (PRI), “an organizational services and support firm specializing in evaluation, evaluation training, and data systems to support evaluations,” worked as a subcontractor for the Institute for Youth Development (IYD) and its sister nonprofit, the Children’s Aids Fund (CAF).

IYD has received millions of dollars from HHS to provide technical assistance and training to abstinence-only groups, crisis pregnancy centers, “healthy marriage” programs and other Bible-based ministries regarding how to receive government grants and how to manage their respective operations. Claudia Horn also provides ResultsOnline, “a customized, web-based program evaluation system that enables users to design their own program evaluation, create customized surveys, input participant information, and create powerful summary reports.”

Given the host of major problems the Obama Administration will be forced to confront, it might not see the benefit of immediately creating a non-discriminatory, crony-free, and accountable faith-based initiative from the get-go. When it does get around to it, Team Obama should be well aware of the possible pitfalls.

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His column, "Conservative Watch," documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right. Read other articles by Bill, or visit Bill's website.

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  1. louisa said on November 12th, 2008 at 11:39am #

    It’s hard to get exercised about the faith-based initiatives enumerated by Berkowitz therein. None of them hold a candle to the longest and most expensive faith-based initiative in the history of the world — unwavering American moral, military and monetary support of the theocratic state of Israel.

    Not only is apartheid Israel based on theft and ethnic cleansing, its existence has been amply funded by American tax dollars and it has been vigorously encouraged for decades by conservatives, rapturists, liberal dems and the countless sayanim among so-called American progressives.