Some 120 African-American clergy and other community leaders gathered in the Eisendhower Executive Office Buildding July 16 to hear from President George W. Bush. The message was simple: Bush wants to divert federal funds to "faith-based" social service programs such as theirs.
"My attitude," Bush insisted, "is taxpayers' money should and must fund effective programs, effective faith-based programs, so long as those services go to anybody in need.... Really what we're doing is we're signing up the armies of compassion, which already exist, and saying, 'what can we do to help you fulfill your calling and your mission?'"
Flanked by seven black clergy including the Rev. Tony Evans of Dallas and the Rev. Eugene Rivers of Boston, Bush touted a new 76-page catalog of federal grants that churches and other religious groups are eligible to apply for.
"We spend a lot of money here in Washington," Bush said, "and monies ought to be accessible to effective faith-based programs which heal people from all walks of life."
The message went down well with the president's audience. He was interrupted often by applause and the occasional amen. According to the Assodciated Baptist Press, as Bush was leaving the room, one man yelled, "Mr. President, four more years!"
That must have been music to the ears of Bush and his political advisers and evidence of the success of their plan to use the faith-based initiative to make inroads with African-American voters.
Bush's team has been candid about that aim. In an interview with USA Today, newly elected Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillesdpie listed the faith-based scheme as one of the administration's major selling points to get more blacks to vote Republican.
"I don't expect a massive wave of party-switching among African-Ameridcans from Democrat to Republidcan," Gillespie told the newspaper, "but I think there is drift there."
Bush's Washington meeting with black clergy is but the latest event designed to push that campaign along. But many critics are coming forward to challenge whether the faith-based initiative is a positive program or a sham designed to divert public attention from cuts in federal programs that help inner-city blacks and others struggling with poverty, illiteracy and crime.
One such critic is Jim Myers, a writer who lives in Washington, D.C., in a predominantly African-American neighborhood that is beset with many social problems. In recent articles in Youth Today and The Washington Post, Myers exposed a shocking example of government profligacy.
According to the writer, the Bush administration and its congressional allies since 2001 have earmarked more than $3 million to the Youth Life Foundation, a faith-based outfit run by former football star Darrell Green. Of that sum, an estimated $1.3 million went to a learning center in northeast Washdingdton that serves only 38 children.
Green's foundation and its center are aligned with Morning Star International, an association of Pentecostal churches with ministries around the world. The foundation's governing board is led by Brett Fuller, pastor of Grace Covenant Church, a Herndon, Va., congregation of which Green is a member.
Lucky participants at Green's learning center at Franklin Commons housing project get not only Bible study and prayer, but also tutoring, summer internships and sometimes private school tuition. "Mystery Trips" take these low-income children to faraway destinations including Chicago, Disney World and the Grand Canyon.
"But," says Myers, "[Green's] center is directly serving only 38 kids, in a city where 35,000 live in poverty. At a time when public spending on social services is being challenged or cut back, such generous amenities offered to one small group can't help but make you wonder about how well served all those other kids are."
The writer noted that the Bush administration is seeking a $400-million cut in the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, the largest federal subsidy for after-school assistance. One source calculates that such a cut would eliminate services for 2,902 needy children in the District of Columbia.
That hasn't kept administration officials from using Green's program as a political backdrop and a "model" of its faith-based enterprise. Myers notes that U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige touted the center, along with Bush's education initiatives, in an appearance with Green in April 2002. Paige visited the center in May 2002 and appeared at a luncheon honoring Green in October of that year.
U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompdson came to the center in June 2002 to announce $30 million in grants to faith-based groups from the Compassion Capital Fund.
In January, Bush named Green chairman of the President's Council on Service and Civic Participation, and the former Redskins cornerback showed up as a guest of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist at the State of the Union. Green also was invited to speak to the congressional Republicans' annual retreat at The Greenbrier Resort shortly afterward.
Observes Myers, "I can't imagine that all these admiring politicians have looked deeply into the cost-effectiveness of the learning center they are holding up as a model for the nation."
Many African-American members of Congress have also criticized the president's faith-based initiative and his spending priorities. They charge that the White House is trying to cut many social service programs. That means more and more applicants are being invited to apply for a smaller and smaller pool of money. They also note that religious groups can already participate in many federal programs by complying with the same rules as other groups. The only major difference in Bush's proposal is that publicly funded church-run programs would be allowed to discriminate in hiring staff, a major rollback of civil rights law.
On the same day in July that Bush met with black clergy, members of the Congressional Black Caucus held a press conference to criticize the White House's funding moves and its faith-based agenda. The focus was administration-backed provisions in a House bill that shift some Head Start programs to state control and allow church-run Head Start centers to hire and fire employees on religious grounds.
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), chairman of the CBC, said, "We can't afford to let our children down." His concerns were echoed by Reps. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.), who has helped lead congressional opposition to the faith-based scheme.
Scott notes that religiously based hiring policies at publicly funded social service programs can easily become de facto race-based policies.
"If there is discrimination based on religion," he says, "there can effectively be discrimination based on race. Sunday at 11 a.m. is still the most segregated hour in America. Churches can discriminate with their own money, but not with federal taxpayers' money."
Critics also note that long-established and widely respected programs may lose federal support as the administration shifts funds to favored faith-based and community agencies. Despite such concerns, Bush's faith-based initiative is lumbering forward. Congress has refused to pass faith-based legislation, but the administration is pushing ahead on other fronts. Here are four recent examples:
Drug Czar John P. Walters in July announced a "partnership" with faith communities to educate youth about substance abuse. Representadtives of mainline Protesdtant, Roman Catholic, Jewish and Muslim groups appeared with Walters at a National Press Club event to tout the initiative. Sayyid Syeed of the Islamic Society of North America said his organization is "very proud to be part of this jihad on drugs and alcohol in America."
HHS Secretary Thompson in July announced $15.2 million in new grants to support abstinence education for teens. Catholic Charities of Honolulu landed $735,032, while Metro Atlanta Youth for Christ received $363,936. Centers for Disease Control director Julie Gerberdding presented the evangelical group with its check.
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez in June announced a "Reaching the Dream" pilot program that encourages faith-based and community groups to promote homeownership.
Jim Towey, director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, and Education Secretary Paige appeared at a daylong conference for 1,400 religious and nonprofit leaders in Minneapolis in July. The topic: how to apply for federal funds.
Towey said "the president is trying to knock down the walls between the poor and effective programs," but some of the attendees were skeptical.
"I think this is terribly political," Jo Ann Wright told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "If this were a real initiative, this [event] should have happened two years ago. This looks like the administration is getting ready for an election."