Eight is Enough?: Bush’s Faith-Based Initiative After Eight Years

New Reports Take Measure of Bush’s Faith-Based Initiative

While it may not be front-page material in a time of financial crises, bailouts, extensive layoffs, and reports of a massive number of housing foreclosures, there is little doubt that President-elect Barack Obama is also thinking about how to fulfill his pledge to rethink President Bush’s faith-based initiative and create effective government/community/faith-based partnerships through his Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

Earlier this month, the Washington, DC-based Brookings Institute entered the discussion with the release of a new report titled “Serving People in Need, Safeguarding Religious Freedom.”

Co-authored by Washington Post columnist and Brookings senior fellow E.J. Dionne, and Melissa Rogers, director of the Center for Religion and Public Affairs at Wake Forest University Divinity School (formerly executive director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty), the report provides an extensive set of recommendations on how governmental partnerships with religious and community organizations ought be approached.

According to Dionne and Rogers, “the key questions facing the next administration are: How will those partnerships function and how will the president-elect push for his agenda in this area to be institutionalized?”

“As you would expect from those two . . . [the report is] an extremely thoughtful and well-meaning effort, often taking excruciating pains to be even-handed and understanding of the two sides in the contentious debate over President Bush’s faith-based initiative,” Mark Silk pointed out at Trinity College’s Spiritual Politics blog. Dionne and Rogers strongly suggest that Obama veer away from the Bush approach that included the blurring of church-state boundaries, the politicization of the initiative, cronyism in awarding grants, and a lack of oversight. Instead, they encourage “more accountability, more transparency in how grants are administered, and a concerted effort to make sure that government funding goes to programs that work and are constitutionally sound.” The report “urge[s] extensive efforts to evaluate programs that receive government funding, and also favor a systematic study of the general practice of contracting out public services.”

However, it appears that Dionne and Rogers punt on at least one vexing issue: the question of religious organizations’ hiring practices. Should a religious organization that receives government funding to provide social services be allowed to discriminate in its hiring practices? Dionne and Rogers’ answer to this vexing question is a recommendation that Obama set up a commission to study the matter. Silk isn’t as fuzzy: “The government’s purpose in funding must be secular, so anyone willing to work for that purpose should be eligible to be hired. If the religious institution feels that its religious identity will be watered down by hiring outsiders, then it is asking the government to subsidize its religious identity. And the government shouldn’t be in the business of doing that.”

Another report of interest — “The State of the Law-2008: A Cumulative Report on Legal Developments Affecting Government Partnerships with Faith-Based Organizations” — was released by the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy, a project of the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, on December 2. Written by Ira C. Lupu and Robert W. Tuttle, co-directors of Legal Research for The Roundtable and Professors of Law at George Washington University, the report, the latest in a series since 2002, looks at the cumulative “state of the law pertaining to government partnerships with faith-based organizations.”

Lupu and Tuttle examine key legal developments since the inception of President Bush’s faith-based initiative in January 2001 and look closely at the most significant legal developments during the past year. Interestingly enough, Lupu and Tuttle point out that “The hiring freedom of FBO’s in partnership with government remains, as it has for eight years, embroiled in political passions. This has been and will continue to be fought out in the arena of politics and policy.”

Lupu and Tuttle note that the retirement of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and the elevation of Samuel Alito to the Court “raises the possibility that the Supreme Court could adapt less restrictive rules on direct aid for religious activity.”

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. bozh said on December 17th, 2008 at 11:44am #

    but, once again, msm dwells only on ad hoc, anecdotal, cosmetic matters.
    the fundamentals, the matters of extreme import, r largely or in toto neglected.
    apparently, to dionne, US is a democarcy and not a plutocarcy.
    a plutocarcy, like any other, always and solely looiking out for their own interests
    otherwise know as US interests that US must defend since out there, there’s mass of feral/primitive/greedy enemy nations.
    who, of course, want to destroy USA, USA, USA! the nobelst and greatest people on earth.
    even US hobos r the greatest hobos on earth. the same goes for houseman, indigene, prisoners, criminals, rapists, wife beaters, cats, dogs, chimneys. thnx

  2. HR said on December 17th, 2008 at 4:25pm #

    Religious organizations ought not to get one dime of public money. There is a separation between church and state.