President George W. Bush and Republicans in Congress are using the catastrophic hurricane that hit the Gulf Coast in late August to press for a new round of funding to religious groups under the “faith-based” initiative and a massive voucher aid program for religious schools.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flood, GOP lawmakers began pressing for a change in federal law to allow government to directly fund religious groups.
“The important thing is to empower and encourage anyone who is willing and able to help administer emergency help,” Kevin Madden, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, told The Washington Post.
At the same time, Bush pulled together black religious leaders in an effort to quell post-hurricane criticisms that his administration had failed to act quickly enough to help mostly poor African-Americans trapped in the New Orleans Superdome and convention center.
Polls showed many blacks furious over the delayed response in New Orleans. An anonymous African-American Bush supporter told The New York Times that he urged the president to use black preachers to mute the complaints.
“I said, ‘Grab some black people who look like they might be preachers,’” the Bush supporter said.
Bush subsequently met with Bishop T.D. Jakes, a popular black television preacher, and convened a meeting of black clergy at the White House. The New York Times noted that many of the religious leaders at the meeting have received money under the faith-based initiative.
Republicans in Congress are also hoping the disaster will open the door to private school vouchers. In the wake of the hurricane, some began arguing for a federal subsidy to pay for schooling of displaced children, including private school tuition. The Bush administration is proposing $488 million in set-asides to pay for educational services at religious and other private schools.
“If we make the decision that federal money will follow the child, we should make it a voucher,” said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). “That’s a Republican principle.”
In other news about the faith-based initiative:
• A new poll shows that most Americans do not favor shifting money from federal anti-poverty programs to religious groups. The poll, conducted by the Pew Research Center For The People & The Press and released Aug. 30, found that 58 percent oppose this type of funding shift. Only 33 percent favored it.
The poll also found that 66 percent favor allowing houses of worship to apply for government funding to provide social services alongside other groups, while 30 percent said they oppose it. The poll did not ask if respondents favor requiring religious groups to meet the same conditions as non-religious providers.
• A cartoonist who has drawn comic strips criticizing the faith-based initiative is facing a campaign to pressure newspapers to drop him. The strip, “Candorville” by Darrin Bell, is syndicated worldwide through the Washington Post Writers Group.
In August, Bell drew a series of strips centering on a black preacher who begins spouting conservative rhetoric from the pulpit after accepting money under the faith-based initiative. Bell told an AU member who had corresponded with him that some people have launched a campaign to get newspapers like The Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune to drop the strip. (For more information on the strip, see www.candorville.com.