When President George W. Bush unveiled his "faith-based initiative" in January, he claimed there was a noble purpose behind the plan.
The program, he said, would muster "armies of compassion" to come to the aid of society's least fortunate the poor, the hungry, the homeless and those grappling with substance-abuse problems.
Yet ever since that day, the drive to pass the initiative has, it seems, become more important to the administration than the initiative's alleged noble goals. And in the process, the proposal has become entwined in the business-as-usual politics of Washington, D.C.
In July, The Washington Post reported that the White House had cut a deal with the Salvation Army: If the Army would issue a high-profile endorsement of the initiative, the administration would use the regulatory process to exempt the publicly funded religious organization from state and local anti-discrimination laws about hiring staff.
The administration and Salvation Army officials were quick to deny charges of a secret pact. But days later The Post reported that Karl Rove, Bush's top political adviser, had brokered the negotiations and even brought a team of Army officials to the White House to meet Bush personally.
In early August, word of another backroom deal surfaced. The evangelical magazine World reported that administration officials have quietly assured Religious Right leaders that they will be permitted to continue proselytizing while participating in the initiative.
This assurance came despite the fact that top administration officials had told Congress the exact opposite just days before, insisting that no proselytism would be allowed in connection with programs using public funds.
To reconcile these two claims, the administration resorted to the usual verbal dodges. Not to worry, White House operatives assured the Religious Right, Justice Department attorney Carl Esbeck "is a master at writing vague language" and has made sure the bill leaves the door sufficiently open to winning souls on the taxpayer's dime.
These activities are only the latest in a sad pattern that has emerged since the faith-based initiative was introduced: The Bush administration is apparently willing to promise anything, make any alliance or flout any constitutional provision to win passage of this measure. At times the relentless crusade to enact the faith-based initiative looks more like an effort to score political points than help poor families.
To be frank, the scheme has been marred by an unfortunate string of lies, duplicity and deceit from day one. The initiative claims to be about religion, but its backers have never hesitated to betray the very ethical principles religion holds at its core in an effort to enact the scheme.
This ought to deeply disturb all religious leaders. It clearly does bother some. Since the unveiling of the proposal, hundreds of clergy from across the theological spectrum have announced their opposition to it. Several have stated that they have no desire to see the faith they cherish turned into just another political football.
But others aren't bothered at all. Eager for whatever scraps they can win from the federal government's table, they are apparently willing to toss principle out the rectory window.
Writing in The Washington Times July 20, Gerald L. Zandstra, director of programs at the Acton Institute, recounted attending a White House function with evangelical pastors who back the faith-based initiative. When Zandstra asked one of them if he was worried about the "no proselytism" rule, the man replied, "We find plenty of ways around that. We have taken government money for years and have converted each of the people who work in the government-funded program."
As Zandstra pointed out, there is an ethical problem with accepting government money when you have no intention of following the rules that accompany it. A member of the clergy should be the first to realize that. But as we know, the lure of 30 pieces of silver can override moral and ethical conduct in some cases.
These recent developments underscore one of the most dangerous aspects of the faith-based initiative: It threatens to turn America's religious community into just another "inside the Beltway" political player.
Once this funding is secured, what's to stop religious groups from behaving like every other special interest in the nation's capital? Will highly paid lobbyists hired by churches stalk the halls of Congress in step with representatives from defense contractors, big corporations and others seeking even bigger handouts? What sort of promises will they make to get that money? Will they conform their religious agenda to that of the state?
As conservative evangelical columnist Cal Thomas put it recently, "There are dozens of verses in the Old and New Testaments indicating God's care and concern for the poor and his displeasure with people who ignore them. But there is no call for Caesar to be the primary provider of help. That's the basic work of the church....[I]f Christians allow themselves to be replaced in such efforts, they will have traded their birthright for something of far less value."
Houses of worship have prospered for more than 200 years in America by relying on voluntary contributions from their supporters. Many have provided social services and good works. Their independence has permitted them, not the government, to determine the scope and content of these programs.
The Bush faith-based initiative would threaten that proven system, exchanging it for one that could turn religion into just another constituent group to be appeased and mollified with federal handouts.