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Faith, Fabrications, and Fantasy (Part 1)
Four years in the life of Bush's faith-based initiative
by Bill Berkowitz
February 14, 2005

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“It's true that much attention is being placed on the war in Iraq, but there's also another war that's going on. It's a culture war that really gets to the heart of the questions about what is the role of faith in the public square.”

-- Jim Towey, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, during a conference promoting the funding of religious groups engaged in social service activities, July 2004

“President Bush does not want to proselytize or fund religion. We're talking about things like job training and substance abuse prevention, and opening up to small groups that have been shut [out] by the ACLU and a radical fringe that wants an extreme separation of church and state.”

-- Jim Towey, San Francisco Chronicle, August 17, 2004

In the coming year, while secular organizations providing much-needed social services to the poor will likely need the Jaws of Life to pry money from the Bush Administration, faith-based organizations will be taking in money hand over fist. In 2003 alone, the administration handed out $1.17 billion in grants to religious organizations, and if the president has his way, individual states will soon be handing over hundreds of millions of dollars to faith-based organizations.

A report entitled “The Expanding Administrative Presidency: George W. Bush and the Faith-Based Initiative” issued this past summer by the Rockefeller Institute of Government in Albany, N.Y., pointed out that religious organizations have now become involved in a wide range of “government-encouraged activities...from building strip malls for economic improvement to promoting child car seats. The report also noted that Bush's faith-based programs “mark a major shift in the constitutional separation of church and state.”

Four years ago, an impressive array of pastors, preachers, rabbis and community leaders shared the White House platform with President Bush as he announced the establishment of The White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. As months passed, and Congress debated some of the thorny issues surrounding Bush's faith-based proposal -- including the propensity of religious organizations to discriminate in their hiring practices against those of other religions, or sexual orientation -- the president moved forward, installing faith-based branch offices in a number of federal agencies. By June 2004, he had added the Department of Commerce, the Small Business Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs to seven other agencies that had already been involved with faith-based projects.

Despite the administration's inability to pass a comprehensive faith-based package through Congress, “Few if any presidents in recent history have reached as deeply into or as broadly across the government to implement a presidential initiative administratively,” Rockefeller Institute director Richard Nathan said.

During the 2000 presidential campaign Bush spoke repeatedly of the ability of faith-based organizations to transform lives. Armed with a great deal of faith but little data, the Texas governor “told audiences that religious organizations succeed where others fail ‘because they change hearts, they convince a person to turn their life over to Christ.’ Whenever ‘my administration sees a responsibility to help people,’ he promised, ‘we will look first to faith-based organizations that have shown their ability to save and change lives.’”

Ability to save and change lives?

In early January, U.S. District Court Judge John Shabaz's ruled that federal funding of a prison mentoring program in Arizona -- run by MentorKids USA -- violated the First Amendment prohibition against the promotion of religion. Perhaps the most startling revelation to come out of the hearings was the lack of monitoring of faith-based grants by the Dept. of Health and Human Services, the federal agency that gave the grant to the group.

The case against MentorKids USA was so clear cut that the DHHS had already withdrawn funding from the program before Judge Shabaz rendered his ruling, In fact, the department “asked Shabaz to dismiss the suit by the Freedom From Religion Foundation contending it was moot” because the grant had been withdrawn, the Capital Times of Madison, Wisconsin reported. But by the time the grant had been cut off, the MentorKids program had already received $175,000 of the $225,000 three-year grant it had been promised in 2003.

According to the decision by Judge Shabaz's, a 2003 memo to case managers written by MentorKids President John Gibson said that the program's mission statement was to “locate, train and empower mentors to be the presence of Christ to kids facing tough life challenges through one-on-one relationships.” “Similar messages ‘permeate’ the program's Web site and board minutes, the decision stated,” the Capital Times reported.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, a spokesperson for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said that a DHSS spokesperson told her that, “it was up to watchdog groups... to monitor the activities of groups getting federal funding.” That, Gaylor pointed out, essentially means that “the government has no guidelines in place or desire to monitor these groups.”

In 2002, the Texas Freedom Network Educational Fund looked closely at Texas' faith-based initiative, established in 1996 when Texas, under the leadership of then-Governor George W. Bush “launched an aggressive campaign to facilitate the delivery of social services by faith-based providers.”

In “The Texas Faith-Based Initiative at Five Years: Warning Signs as President Bush Expands Texas-Style Program to National Level,” a report covering the first five years of the initiative, the organization found that:

*  “Loosening regulations over faith-based providers has not served the faith community at large, but has instead provided a refuge for facilities with a history of regulatory violations, a theological objection to state oversight and a higher rate of abuse and neglect.

*  “Loosening regulations over faith-based providers has endangered people in need and lowered standards of client health, safety and quality of care in Texas.

*  “Faith-based deregulation has allowed physical diseases to go medically untreated.

*  “Regulatory changes have resulted in preferential treatment of faith-based providers in government contracting opportunities.

*  “Taxpayer funds have been co-mingled with church funds and spent on overtly religious activities.

*  “Clients have been ordered by the courts to attend unlicensed faith-based providers.”

Click here for Part II: Despite being results-impaired, Bush plans to take his faith-based initiative to the states.

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.

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