My Big Fat GOP Wedding

Bush Administration Marriage Grants Seek To Wed Church And State In Unholy Matrimony

Gov. Jeb Bush is worried that too many couples in Florida are getting divorced. He sees religious leaders as crucial players in reversing that trend and would like to help them tackle the problem with a generous helping of taxpayer funds.

Involvement of the religious community is essential, Bush told reporters during a December conference call.

" Seventy-five percent of all the marriages in this state are in churches and synagogues and mosques," Bush said. "There is a higher responsibility for all of us to recognize that every institution that values family life has to play a role in this."

Bush shrugged off objections that the initiative would constitute an unwanted government intrusion into what has traditionally been a private matter.

" Government," he remarked, "is already involved in every aspect of people's lives."

Hundreds of miles to the north in Washington, D.C., Gov. Bush's brother, President George W. Bush, is also eager to enlist religious groups to promote marriage. In early January, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), acting through its Administration for Children and Families, announced that it would give $2.2 million in federal funds to a variety of religious and other non-profit groups to sponsor programs that will purportedly strengthen marriage. Bush, who last year tried unsuccessfully to give $300 million for programs to promote marriage, is expected to push for hundreds of millions more for similar projects across the country this year. Political observers say the Republican-dominated Congress will likely be receptive to the plan.

The Bush brothers' promotion of marriage is part of a new trend among the allies of the Religious Right. Long wary of anything that smacks of government-sponsored social engineering, ultra-conservative politicians and fundamentalist activists are suddenly eager to see church and state forming partnerships to encourage marriage and discourage divorce. The HHS grants are the leading edge of what could be a fast-growing trend.

In Florida, state Christian Coalition head Carolyn Kunkle applauded Jeb Bush's move, telling the St. Petersburg Times, "There are times when the family is in a stressful situation, and they think the only way out is divorce. Well, our grandparents were married for 75 or 80 years. They went through some stressful times, yet they were able to keep their families together."

Jeb Bush said he would like to kick off his initiative by surveying Floridians to determine their attitudes about marriage and family issues. Although Religious Right groups have opposed surveys about personal issues like marriage, sexual relations and child rearing in the past, Kunkle was solidly behind the Bush plan. She urged Bush to go even farther and called for adjusting the state's no-fault divorce law, which Kunkle claims makes it too easy for couples to split.

Taxpayer funding of religion is key to the new strategy. In Washington, a certain portion of the HHS money is earmarked for "faith-based" approaches. One grant went to an Allentown, Pa., group called Community Services for Children, Inc. The organization received $177,374 in tax funds to offer classes in "family formation and development." The classes must include a religious component.

Paula Margraf, who runs Head Start programs for the group, told the Allentown Morning Call that the agency is not interested in "forcing religion on anyone" but said additional counseling through houses of worship would be available for those who want it.

Advocates of church-state separation are watching the new developments with unease. While they don't dispute the importance of strong marriages and families to society, proponents of church-state separation worry that the marriage initiative could become just another ploy to plow tax money into religious organizations under the guise of addressing a thorny social problem.

Efforts to link government policy to the promotion of marriage actually stretch back to the welfare reform bill of 1996. At the behest of social conservatives, the law included a provision allowing states to use some welfare funds to pay for marriage-promotion programs. Utah, Arizona, Louisiana, Florida, Michigan and Oklahoma have already created such initiatives.

Although funding for the programs existed during the presidency of Bill Clinton, there was little enthusiasm from that administration for a full-court press on marriage initiatives. President Bush, however, seems eager to rev up the program, seeing it as a vital component of his "faith-based" initiative.

Bush is so enthusiastic about pushing marriage that he hired a so-called "marriage czar" to work as assistant secretary of health and human services for children and families. The staffer, Wade F. Horn, worked in the administration of the first George Bush and then ran a group called the National Fatherhood Initiative. Horn has attacked no-fault divorce laws and once suggested in an article that the government should give preferential treatment to married welfare recipients, such as putting them at the top of the list for subsidized housing. (Horn now says he no longer supports that idea.)

Like so many others in the Bush administration, Horn stands solidly behind a faith-based approach to social problems and sees no problem with taxpayer funding of religious groups. Last year Horn told Focus on the Family's Citizen magazine that he advocates states offering a type of voucher so couples could choose religious counseling. Horn believes this approach circumvents any church-state problems.

" It allows the provider not to have to take the faith out of his services," Horn told Citizen.

Horn was quick to praise former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, who in 2000 set aside $10 million of the state's welfare budget for a marriage initiative heavily anchored in the religious community. Horn called the project "quite exciting" and said he was looking forward to seeing the results.

Clergy in the state were asked to sign the "Oklahoma Marriage Covenant," a pledge to require couples to undergo a four-to-six month period of preparation before a wedding. Counselors were also trained in a Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program, which purports to help couples communicate better. According to Citizen, participants could choose a secular or Christian version of the program. Despite the religious content of the latter, the state still paid for the training.

Dr. Bruce Prescott, director of Mainstream Baptists in Oklahoma, has tried to track faith-based money being used to prop up the marriage initiative in his state but has found the going difficult.

" In Oklahoma, the money gets distributed and no one knows," Prescott said. "The people in the legislature just close their eyes. They sure don't want to be on the wrong side of something that has to do with faith.... Churches have easy money and loose accountability. It's going to be a disaster when it's said and done. In Oklahoma, the government is telling pastors, 'You don't have to compromise your Christian witness and faith.' It's a way of putting any government social service provider out of business."

Prescott, a Baptist minister himself, suspects that most of the money is going to Religious Right-oriented churches. He is also skeptical that marriage-promotion programs can avoid advancing religion.

" Why are you going to a Christian minister for a marriage if you're not trying to deal with that in a religious context?" he asks. "You could go to the justice of the peace. If you need counseling, you could see a psychologist. I honestly think this is about funneling tax funds to ministers one way or another."

While the Oklahoma project still has seven years to run, early results are not encouraging. Oklahoma is known as a conservative and religious state, but it also has the second-highest divorce rate in the nation. (Thirty-one percent of Oklahomans are Southern Baptists, making it the state with the third highest percentage of Southern Baptists in the country.) So far, the divorce rate has not changed.

Some observers say the marriage-improvement movement's emphasis on conservative religious groups and "faith-based" organizations is ironic. Statistical data shows that historically, members of conservative religious denominations have a higher divorce rate than the rest of the population.

In 1999, evangelical pollster George Barna's Barna Research Group released a study concluding that, "Divorce rates among conservative Christians were much higher than for other faith groups."

In the study, Barna wrote, "While it may be alarming to discover that born-again Christians are more likely than others to experience a divorce, that pattern has been in place for quite some time. Even more disturbing, perhaps, is that when those individuals experience a divorce many of them feel their community of faith provides rejection rather than support and healing. But the research also raises questions regarding the effectiveness of how churches minister to families. The ultimate responsibility for a marriage belongs to the husband and wife, but the high incidence of divorce within the Christian community challenges the idea that churches provide truly practical and life-changing support for marriages."

Barna found the highest divorce rate among "non-denominational" Christian groups, at 34 percent. Among Baptists, 29 percent had been divorced. For "born-again" Christians the rate was 27 percent, and for mainline Protestants it was 25 percent. Ironically, the group that had the lowest divorce rate was the atheist/agnostic contingent, at 21 percent.

The Barna study also found that the South often referred to as the "Bible Belt" for its prevalence of religious conservatism had the nation's highest divorce rate at 27 percent. By contrast, the Northeast, commonly viewed as a bastion of liberalism by the Religious Right, had the lowest 19 percent. In Arkansas, a heavily Baptist state that has the nation's highest divorce rate, Gov. Mike Huckabee, a great favorite of the Religious Right, has declared a "marital emergency."

What types of programs will religious groups offer with tax funding under the new marriage initiatives? Because the effort is so new, no one is quite sure. But advocates of church-state separation worry that Bible studies or other overtly religious endeavors will be substituted for counseling and other types of secular programs.

Other critics assert that marriage programs will become a substitute for effective welfare programs or an excuse to reduce benefits for those in need. Although conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation are quick to point to marriage as a panacea for poor women, other organizations insist that the picture is not so simple.

In December, the Council on Contemporary Families issued a paper challenging claims by Heritage and other groups that marriage-improvement programs yield positive results and that marriage is a quick fix for poor women. The report, "Marriage Preparation Prescriptions for Welfare Reform: Take with Several Grains of Salt," asserts that the damaging effects of poverty are so serious they cannot be eliminated with a shotgun wedding.

Report authors Stephanie Coontz, professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Washington, and Pamela J. Smock, a sociology professor at the University of Michigan, write, "The problems associated with poverty and family instability can be solved only by a multi-pronged approach that includes: investments in job training and education; interventions to help couples, married or unmarried, parent more effectively; and accessible, affordable birth control in low-income communities to ensure that pregnancies are not unwanted or mistimed. In combination with such measures, tested couples interventions with adequate follow-up could be an effective social service. But legislators should not be stampeded into substituting untested programs for a full spectrum of measures to reduce poverty and improve parenting."

Coontz, author of the 1994 book The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, expanded on her views in an interview with Church & State.

" There is a lot of wishful thinking going on here, or misdirection, depending on how cynical you want to be about people's motives," she observed. "Many social conservatives believe, or would like to convince the rest of us to believe, that if we could just increase the marriage rate, most of America's poverty problems would disappear, and we could save all sorts of money on welfare. But this is unrealistic. Non-marriage is often a result rather than a cause of poverty, and it is unrealistic, if not downright dangerous, to try to get people married without investing in jobs, education, and decent health services so people can get ongoing help, either to repair a salvageable relationship down the road or to exit from a destructive one."

The American people seem wary of federally promoted marriage as well. A poll released by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press early in 2002 found that 79 percent of Americans believe government should "stay out" of marriage promotion. A separate poll found that 86 percent of respondents believe welfare money should go to helping people get jobs, not to promote marriage.

Advocates of church-state separation have another reason for being suspicious of the new scheme: Past efforts by the federal government to respond to social problems with a barrage of "faith-based" funding have resulted in severe church-state entanglement.

The same 1996 welfare law that aims to boost marriages also made millions in tax money available for "abstinence-based" sex education programs aimed at teenagers. In Louisiana, state officials accepted $1.6 million in federal funds and added state money to launch a Governor's Program on Abstinence (GPA). They then began doling out the cash, much of which ended up in the hands of religious groups.

The money was not supposed to be used to further religion, but the "faith-based" groups that took the funds apparently were not told that or did not care. The American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana uncovered several instances of tax funds being used to promote religion and eventually filed a lawsuit to block it.

One group, the Crisis Pregnancy Center of Slidell, bragged that it taught "a scriptural view of human sexuality" to teens. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Lafayette took taxpayer money and used it to teach adolescents about "God's plan for them" and to transport teens to protests at abortion clinics. Another group, the Southwest Louisiana Area Health Education Center, used GPA funds to buy Bibles and Christian music tapes for participants.

The ACLU also found that material distributed by the governor's office contained religious content. One "fact sheet" from the office for high school students asserted that the rate of venereal disease has increased because "we removed God from the classroom"; another sheet criticized sex outside of marriage because it leads to "the demise of our Judeo-Christian heritage."

In July, a federal court ordered the state to stop funding programs that "convey religious messages or otherwise advance religion in any way."

Dan Richey, coordinator of the state's abstinence education program, insisted that groups that received the tax funds had been told not to use it to promote religion. But staffers at the ACLU used freedom-of-information laws to get copies of proposals submitted by religious groups that clearly outlined religious activities.

" In our lawsuit challenging the Louisiana Governor's Program on Abstinence's religious use of government funds, we came across numerous examples ranging from discussions of the virgin birth [of Jesus] to purchasing Bibles to prayer vigils at abortion clinics," Jaya Ramji of the ACLU's Reproductive Freedom Project, told Church & State. "We found evidence of promotion of specific religious messages by the GPA and its grantees in official GPA documents, in monthly reports submitted by grantees, and even in grantees' funding proposals and proposed curriculums."

Supporters of church-state separation and those who worry about replacing effective programs with an untested "faith-based" approach fear that history may be about to repeat itself as the federal government increases tax funding for marriage-improvement programs.

" We have already seen the triumph of ideology over research in the refusal to admit that teen sex-education programs which combine abstinence or resistance messages with contraceptive information are more effective than abstinence-only programs," said Coontz. "And knowing something about the prevalence of problems such as addiction, infidelity, and domestic violence among impoverished populations, I worry a lot about marriage preparation and counseling programs being conducted by people who have an across-the board moral condemnation of divorce, or who see unwed motherhood as so immoral that they would advise a woman to marry the father of her child under almost any circumstance."

Continued Coontz, "We tried a faith-based substitute for government programs before, in the late 19th century, and it led to some terrible abuses in the treatment of immigrants, African-Americans and working women who violated the reformers' views about the proper role of women."

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn agreed that the new approach is troublesome.

" The Bush administration seems convinced that every social problem can be fixed by knocking holes in the wall of separation between church and state and throwing large amounts of taxpayer money at houses of worship," Lynn said. "Houses of worship undoubtedly have something to say about marriage, but that's no reason to encourage them to run religious programs on the taxpayer's dime. The American people should not say 'I do' to this scheme."