Faith-Based Backlash

Chorus Of Criticism Forces Bush Administration Into Retreat On Religion Funding Initiative

Central Union Mission in Washington, D.C., serves men who have hit rock bottom: drug addicts, chronic lawbreakers and alcoholics. Mission staffers believe these men can turn their lives around but only through religious transformation. At its rehabilitation programs, Bible study and Christian worship are mandatory.

The mission also operates a feeding program and a homeless shelter, and men who stop by for a meal or a cot for the night are expected to attend Christian services and pray. Central Union, a branch of the International Union of Gospel Missions, doesn't try to hide its Christian trappings. Its logo is a radiant cross flanked by the words, "Come unto me." Staffers' business cards bear a passage from the 41st Psalm: "Blessed is he who considers the poor; the Lord will deliver him in time of trouble."

Central Union has absolutely no interest in watering down its evangelical nature. That's one reason why Executive Director David O. Treadwell is wary of President George W. Bush's proposal to subsidize "faith-based" social service programs with taxpayer dollars.

"I just can't see how the government's got any business doing that," Treadwell says. "We're like an extension of the church. I've heard the president say that he is intending to separate our religious work, but we are in the business of converting people to Christ. That's what we do. We believe that's the ultimate answer to their needs."

Continues Treadwell, "Ultimately, our purpose is to glorify God and make disciples. We want to be known for integrity. I want to fulfill my mission with integrity. I don't like to be in situations where I can't support my mission."

Treadwell isn't the only religious leader expressing skepticism about the Bush plan these days. Since the president unveiled the proposal Jan. 29, a chorus of voices from all points on the religious and political spectrums has been raising concerns and they just keep getting louder and louder.

In addition to general concern about church-state separation, worries about the "faith-based" initiative seem to fall into two major categories: Some religious leaders warn that the scheme will open the door to government regulation of houses of worship, while others fret about tax money flowing to unconventional religious groups such as the Hare Krishnas and the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church.

Doubts among the Religious Right surfaced in February when TV preacher Pat Robertson unexpectedly blasted Bush's "faith-based" initiative on his nationally broadcast "700 Club" television show on the very day the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives officially opened. (Americans United circulated the remarks to the news media, and several national stories about the rift resulted.)

Although Robertson gave the Republican candidate enthusiastic support during the presidential campaign, the Virginia-based TV preacher is extremely wary about the "faith-based" initiative. His opposition apparently escalated after reading a Feb. 20 New York Times story about plans by controversial religious groups to get tax support.

Headlined "Bush's Call to Church Groups To Get Untraditional Replies," the article by Times religion writer Laurie Goodstein chronicled efforts by groups such as the Hare Krishnas, the Unification Church, the Church of Scientology and other unorthodox denominations to make sure they get their share of the "faith-based" pie.

The article noted that some of these groups are already getting government money, detailing how the Hare Krishnas received $2.5 million in public funds to run a halfway house for ex-convicts in Philadelphia. The Krishnas secularized the program to qualify, but under Bush's proposal they could bring their faith, an offshoot of Hinduism, back in.

The article also quoted officials with Scientology who hope to win federal funds for a drug rehabilitation program and representatives of the Unification Church who want help for an abstinence-based sex education course. (Scientology's drug rehabilitation program, Narconon, has already received government funding in some states.)

Robertson was not pleased. "I really don't know what to do," he told his "700 Club" audience Feb. 20. "But this thing could be a real Pandora's box. And what seems to be such a great initiative can rise up to bite the organizations as well as the federal government. And I'm a little concerned about it, frankly."

Robertson was particularly concerned that religious minorities he doesn't like will receive public tax dollars under the Bush plan. " I mean, the Moonies have been proscribed, if I can use that, for brainwashing techniques, sleep deprivation and all the rest of it that goes along with their unusual proselytizing," said Robertson. "The Hare Krishnas much the same thing. And it seems appalling to me that we're going to go for somebody like that, or the Church of Scientology, which was involved in an incredible campaign against the IRS. I mean, they were accused of all sorts of underhanded tactics."

A few weeks later, Robertson penned an opinion piece for USA Today in which he suggested that Bush "overhaul" his plan. Robertson proposed ditching the idea of direct cash grants to religious groups in favor of a system of tax credits to individuals and corporations that make donations to such groups. He also recommended that the federal government first screen all faith-based groups that wanted to take part and create a national registry of participating organizations. These groups would be required to segregate funds donated through the program and prove that they had used them for specific projects approved by the government.

In the March 5 column, Robertson asserted that his approach will avert the "intolerable situation" of tax money flowing directly to groups like the Hare Krishnas and the Church of Scientology.

That same day, Robertson again criticized the Bush "faith-based" plan on the "700 Club," warning his audience, "So, that's the danger number one, the federal rules will envelope these organizations, they'll begin to be nurtured, if I can use that term, on federal money, and then they can't get off of it. It'll be like a narcotic, they can't then free themselves later on. And the second problem and it's a serious problem is that people of every aberrant group known to man can apply to the federal trough....And I think the vast majority of American people find this intolerable."

The question of participation by unconventional organizations clearly troubles Robertson. Bush and his advisors haven't helped matters by being all over the map when asked about the eligibility of these groups to participate in "faith-based" plans." During the campaign, Bush told The Times that while he has "a problem" with the teachings of Scientology, all that matters is the effectiveness of the program.

"I am interested in results," he remarked. "I am not focused on the process."

But Stephen Goldsmith, a key Bush advisor on "faith-based" initiatives, strongly implied to conservative television host John McLaughlin Feb. 2 that certain religious organizations shouldn't even bother to apply for government funding. Asked about Wiccans by McLaughlin during the "One on One" program, Goldsmith was dismissive.

"[T]he parameters have to be on the nature of the services presented and what is happening inside the [homeless] shelter, consistent with the definition of what the government is trying to buy," Goldsmith said. "The government is trying to furnish health care, trying to furnish shelter, it's trying to furnish food. For me, I don't think that Wiccans would meet the standard of kind of being humane providers of domestic violence shelters."

Bush and his backers also seem uncertain what to do about the Nation of Islam. The controversial organization, headed by Minister Louis Farrakhan, has been charged with anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism and extremist rhetoric, but it is "faith-based" and its affiliates have received government contracts in the past. Last year Bush flatly declared that the group would not be eligible for tax funding because it "preaches hate."

But John J. DiIulio Jr., head of the White House's faith-based office, proposed a different model while addressing the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) in Dallas on March 7. He said the federal government would use performance models to determine which groups are doing the job well and distribute aid without bias. DiIulio conceded that this could mean that tax money will flow to groups some Americans don't like, but in effect said those people will just have to get over it.

"[T]he Constitution gives taxpayers no right to insist that government decisions, including procurement decisions, will not offend their moral judgments," DiIulio said. "Evenhanded performance standards, not illegal, a priori procurement black lists, have been, and continue to be, government's best constitutional method for keeping horrible louts, religious or secular, on the outs."

The question may be moot for now, as Farrakhan denies that he is interested in federal funding. In a Feb. 25 address in Chicago, the fiery minister blasted Bush's proposal, calling it an effort by Republicans to woo black clergy. "Bush is not foolish," Farrakhan told a crowd of about 4,000. "He wants to win you, preacher."

The Nation of Islam, however, has received federal funding in the past. In 1995, U.S. Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.) and U.S. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) contacted officials at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) demanding to know why HUD had paid the Nation of Islam $20 million to $30 million to provide security at public housing projects in Baltimore, Chicago, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. By the end of 1996, all of HUD's contracts with the Nation of Islam had been terminated.

Ironically, under Bush's own standard which claims to examine only the effectiveness of the program being offered by a religious group HUD should not have defunded the Nation of Islam. Evidence suggests that at many housing projects Nation of Islam security teams, known as the "X-Men," had actually reduced crime and driven off drug dealers. The group was accused of proselytizing by distributing copies of its Final Call newspaper, which critics say preaches anti-Semitism and racial division, but under Bush's approach, this type of activity alone would not be sufficient grounds to deny funding.

The administration may also be vexed by public opinion polls, which tend to show support for Bush's "faith-based" initiative on first blush. That support plummets, however, as the specifics of the proposal are detailed. For example, a CBS-New York Times survey issued March 14 found that two-thirds of Americans liked the idea of giving religious groups tax aid to provide social services. But when asked if they believe groups such as the Nation of Islam, Scientology and the Hare Krishnas should be allowed to take part, respondents said no by a 2-1 margin.

Aside from the question of participation by unconventional religious groups, Bush and his allies have been unclear about whether "faith-based" groups that take tax aid will be permitted to pressure or even require needy people to take part in religious activities as a condition of receiving aid.

In late February, The Washington Post reported that DiIulio told representatives from Jewish groups that no group that engages in aggressive proselytism can expect government funding.

DiIulio's Feb. 26 comment came in response to a question from Lynn Lyss of the National Council of Jewish Women, who asked him point blank about the matter. Lyss cited a Texas anti-drug program that seeks to convert addicts to fundamentalist Christianity and asked DiIulio if this type of program would now be eligible for federal funding. DiIulio replied, "The answer to your question is a strong no."

Lyss was apparently referring to Teen Challenge, a drug rehabilitation program with a fundamentalist Christian character. Teen Challenge's rehab effort consists mainly of convincing young addicts to undergo religious conversion; it includes intensive Bible study and other religious features.

But DiIulio's "no" turned out to be not so strong after all. After the Post story ran, DiIulio came under fire from evangelical groups that accused him of advocating discrimination against them. DiIulio's office was quick to claim that the Post had taken his comments out of context.

DiIulio moved rapidly to repair the damage. Just days after he met with the Jewish groups, he appeared to take the opposite position in an interview with the Associated Press. In the story, which ran March 2, DiIulio conceded that "faith-based" groups would be allowed to take tax aid and still compel participation in religious worship.

Reads the AP story, "When pressed, he [DiIulio] addresses the heart of their [critics'] concerns, allowing that much of their legal analysis is accurate. Yes, he says, government money may wind up paying for programs that require involvement in religion, even require someone to profess particular religious views. Yes, he says, churches and synagogues should be allowed to continue discriminating in their hiring, even if they get government money."

Advocates of church-state separation note that what DiIulio thinks about this issue is less important than the views held by his boss, Bush, who appears eager to funnel tax money to "faith-based" groups that engage in proselytism. They point out that last year during the campaign, Bush unveiled his "faith-based" initiative at a Teen Challenge center in Iowa, standing under a giant painting of Jesus. He frequently lauds Teen Challenge when talking about the merits of "faith-based" programs.

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn charges that Bush and DiIulio are issuing muddled messages.

"It's pretty obvious that the president wants to give aggressive religious groups unprecedented access to the treasury with no meaningful attempt to respect church-state separation," said Lynn. "It's also obvious that his plan is a radical assault on the wall of separation between church and state, dressed up in fuzzy-sounding language about helping the needy."

Continued Lynn, "So far, the message out of the White House seems to be, 'Religious groups that take this money can proselytize, as long as their message isn't an unpopular or controversial one.' Let me be crystal clear about this: From the perspective of the First Amendment, that is an absolute non-starter."

In the field, Bush's advisors are telling religious leaders that they need not tone down the religiosity of their programs to get federal money. Cynthia W. Parr, an Augusta, Ga., resident, heard this message loud and clear when she attended a gathering of about 200 local religious leaders who met with Goldsmith on Feb. 24.

Parr took notes on the meeting and reported that during the question-and-answer session an attendee "said that his group built houses and did after-school training but their real goal was to spread the gospel. Would they be eligible for money? Mr. Goldsmith replied yes. Bush was trying to level the playing ground."

According to Parr's notes, which were made available to Church & State, religious leaders at the meeting were told that under the Bush proposal, they would be allowed to compete for federal money to achieve their missions and still retain a sectarian character.

"If a church was in the business of setting up a soup kitchen, the government money could be used for everything 'except the Bibles,'" her notes read. "The group could continue to pass out religious material (that they themselves provide) and require prayer by their clients." According to Parr, the religious leaders were told they would not be able to discriminate on religious grounds when serving clients, but she got the impression that they would have wider latitude in this area when hiring staff for their programs.

Parr told Church & State that Ralph Reed, a Bush advisor who formerly ran the Christian Coalition for TV preacher Robertson, attended the meeting as a "special guest." She noted that no non-Christian clergy were there and later asked Augusta Mayor Bob Young, who had organized the gathering, why that was so.

Young replied that he had invited everyone in the phonebook under "Church." In her notes, Parr wrote, "When I suggested that he had left out 'Synagogues,' he replied, 'Well I guess you're going to tell me I left out the [Muslim] imams too.'"

Parr said she left the meeting, which was held at an Episcopal church and opened with a Christian prayer, convinced that "'faith-based charities' is a code word for Christian-based charities." Parr, whose husband is a rabbi, said she is exploring the possibility of pulling together local clergy to oppose the "faith-based" initiative.

Further complicating matters in the "faith-based" controversy is the fact that Bush is offering no new money for his initiative. Thus, any religious programs that receive federal money will get it at the expense of existing programs, most of which are secular or are run by religious groups in ways that don't violate church-state separation. Representatives of Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services and other mainstream social service agencies seem quite worried about this aspect of the dispute.

With federal funding limited, advocates for the poor fear that the administration's bias toward "faith-based" groups may spell the end of effective secular programs. This happened recently when the Bush budget plan defunded a federal program that pays for security officers, alarm systems and after-school activities for young people at public housing projects.

Community leaders said the program -- designed to keep drugs out of the housing projects was working, but Robert Woodson Jr., deputy chief of staff at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, told the Associated Press that the government wants to direct the money toward "faith-based" groups instead.

Despite intensive media and grassroots outreach, Bush's initiative continues to encounter resistance from the religious community -- and increasing skepticism from the Religious Right. For example, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), which usually adopts the GOP line on social issues, is urging caution.

In early March Richard Land, of the SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (the denomination's lobbying arm in Washington), penned an opinion piece for the website beliefnet.com in which he said that while he believes the Bush proposal is constitutional, it could be dangerous for churches.

"If the government gives funding to religious groups, then it must oversee how the money is used and, we fear, how churches spread their message," wrote Land. "That worry, coupled with the knowledge that Bush will not always be president and that one of his successors may have a far less favorable posture toward faith-based groups, causes many religious Americans grave reservations."

Land added, "As for me and my house, I would not touch it [government money] with the proverbial 10-foot pole."

At the same time, the Rev. Jerry Falwell raised similar concerns in an interview with beliefnet.com. Falwell expressed skepticism that government aid would really be given with no strings attached, and even if it were, he said, the rules could easily change in the future.

"I would not want to put any of the Jerry Falwell Ministries in a position where we might be subservient to a future Bill Clinton, God forbid," observed Falwell.

The Lynchburg televangelist also said he is worried about some of the religious groups that might apply for government funding. In intemperate remarks that generated a significant backlash, Falwell suggested that the government bar any aid to Islamic groups.

"I think the Moslem faith teaches hate...Islam should be out the door before they knock," Falwell said. "If you're not going to minister to blacks, whites, all colors and religions, and you're not going to allow freedom of expression in every circumstance...you should not be allowed to dip into the pork barrel."

Even Marvin Olasky, the ultra-conservative Christian writer who has served as Bush's guru on "faith-based" initiatives, is no fan of the president's current approach. Olasky told The Washington Times that he is worried that church-state separation groups will force religious organizations that take federal aid to water down their religiosity. Like Robertson, Olasky said he prefers an approach that emphasizes tax credits. Since then, he has also promoted a voucher-style system.

The White House is aware that its plan is in trouble and is desperately trying to shore it up. Bush staffers, however, seem unsure how to handle the unexpected criticism from the Religious Right. Robertson, appearing on Fox News Channel's "The Edge with Paula Zahn" Feb. 28, said that his original criticism of the Bush proposal drew a quick response from the White House. Top Bush advisor Karl Rove faxed the TV preacher and invited him to Washington to discuss his concerns. But Robertson did not immediately accept that offer.

Now some administration officials have shifted tactics from appeasement to attack. During his speech before the NAE on March 7, DiIulio used thinly veiled terms to blast Robertson and others in the Religious Right.

"With all due respect, and in all good fellowship," he said, "predominantly white, exurban, evangelical and national para-church leaders should be careful not to presume to speak for any persons other than themselves and their own churches."

DiIulio, who described himself as a "born-again Catholic," added that "predominantly exurban, white evangelical churches" are not like "urban African American and Latino faith communities." These latter groups, he asserted, "have benevolent traditions and histories that make them generally more dedicated to community-serving missions and generally more confident about engaging public and secular partners in achieving those missions without enervating their spiritual identities or religious characters."

DiIulio's criticism, which seems to have come without White House approval, did not sit well with its targets. The SBC's Land replied, "It would rankle less if he wasn't so ignorant about us and didn't try to stereotype us."

Administration officials are desperately trying to retool their message. On March 7, The Washington Post reported that DiIulio would begin arguing that only faith-based groups that agree to "segregate" their religious work from the services they provide will receive funding. Religious charities unable to separate the two would be made eligible for payments similar to private school vouchers.

AU's Lynn said the barrage of new proposals is only making things worse. He added that Bush and his staffers in the "faith-based" office apparently have a poor understanding of how religious groups operate if they believe faith is something that can be turned on and off like a faucet.

"Asking a church to segregate its secular and spiritual functions represents a deeply flawed misunderstanding of the nature of the church," Lynn said. "Houses of worship generally see their community efforts as inextricably linked to a spiritual message."

On March 12, The Post reported that Bush administration officials plan to put some core components of the "faith-based" initiative on hold until they can figure out a way to address the torrent of criticism. Don Eberly, the deputy director of the White House office, told the newspaper, "We're postponing. We're not ready to send our own bill up."

The next day key Senate supporters of the measure said they will split the measure in two. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) said he will act quickly to introduce the less controversial aspects of the program, such as tax incentives to spur charitable giving. But Santorum said the heart of the plan, which includes direct government funding of religion, might be delayed for several months or as much as a year.

Statements from Bush insisting that there is no slowdown on the proposal have only further muddied the waters. "I'm proud of the faith-based initiative," he said March 12. "There's a lot of bipartisan support on the Hill. We're moving forward with that."

But the initiative's "bipartisan support" appears to be dissolving. Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), the chief Democratic supporter of the "faith-based" aid concept, said recently that he is looking anew at controversial components of the proposal, including questions about proselytism and employment discrimination. He told beliefnet.com that he cannot support legislation that allows religious groups to avoid hiring gays.

While political support for the faith-based initiative remains uncertain, the plan is nevertheless slowly moving forward in Congress.

On March 21, Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) hosted a Capitol Hill press conference to announce the introduction of the "Community Solutions Act" (H.R. 7). The measure, which has already received the support of Rep. Tony Hall (D-Ohio) and Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), would allow government funding of churches and other religious groups to provide a wide range of services, including crime prevention, hunger relief, housing, community development, juvenile justice, job training, child welfare, senior citizens, domestic violence and after-school care.

The same day, Sens. Santorum (R-Pa.) and Lieberman (D-Conn.) unveiled the "Savings Opportunity and Charitable Giving Act." Unlike the House bill, the Senate measure emphasizes tax incentives and does not include the most controversial provisions of the Bush initiative such as grants to religious groups.

Though Watts' press conference was billed as an event to unveil legislation, proponents did not actually have a bill to introduce. The language of the measure was not available, and staffers for Watts said it would be another week before the legislation would be ready. Watts did say, however, that his approach would mirror that of the Bush administration, making his plan susceptible to the same criticisms leveled at the White House plan.

As a result of all the disputes, critics of the Bush initiative are optimistic that the scheme can be defeated. "We've just finished round one, and the Bush team is staggering back to their corner," said AU's Lynn. "Those of us who oppose this unconstitutional scheme have every reason to be cheering about these developments."

Some political conservatives and religious leaders will remain wary no matter what the Bush administration eventually decides to do. Back at the Central Union Mission, David Treadwell shares the innate skepticism that many conservative Christians have about the Bush "faith-based" initiative. Treadwell says he could certainly use more money, but he won't accept any government meddling in his religious activities.

Asked what he would do if the federal government offered him a generous grant with a promise of no strings attached, he pauses a minute then replies, "I wasn't born yesterday. I would say, 'What paperwork comes with that? What reports are you going to need from me? Are you sure you won't come back a year from now and say this year you can't have Bible study?'"