Editor’s Note: When the American Right began its dramatic rise in the early 1980s, one of its early slogans was “Defund the Left” — by gutting government-funded social programs managed by liberal organizations. Two decades later, George W. Bush’s administration went further, into “Funding the Right.”

In this guest essay, Rev. Howard Bess looks at how Bush institutionalized these political subsidies under the umbrella of his faith-based initiatives:

During the presidential tenure of George W. Bush, a very significant, largely unnoticed organizational innovation took place.

I am not writing about the Department of Homeland Security. Homeland Security is very visual. Anyone who travels is aware of Homeland Security. The agency has become a reluctantly accepted fact of American life.

Rather I am writing about the Bush administration’s Faith-Based and Community Initiative. With little scrutiny the U.S. government has fundamentally changed its approach to meeting the needs of Americans who are poor or in need of some sort of public help.

When campaigning for the presidency, Mr. Bush talked about compassionate conservatism. The general public accepted the language as an indicator of a new and positive attitude toward meeting the needs of all Americans.

In fact, it was code language understood only by his inner circle of confidants.  Compassionate conservatism was our introduction to the establishment of the Faith-Based and Community Initiative.

Faith-motivated, not-for-profit organizations have worked with major federal grant monies for many years. The rules have been very plain. Grant monies cannot be used for evangelizing or proselytizing. Grant recipients cannot discriminate in hiring practices. Grant monies cannot be used to pay the salaries of those who perform duties that are clearly sectarian.

No discrimination of any kind is allowed against potential clients.

Two examples of large, responsible recipients of federal funds are Catholic Social Services and Lutheran Social Services. For many years, they and other faith-based organizations have provided helping services for people using federal dollars and have operated completely within the rules.

These long-standing rules were driven by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion.”

In legal circles the provision is simply called the “establishment clause.” By long-standing legal precedence, Americans are free to choose and practice their religion or no religion at all. Government is to stay out of the religion business directly or indirectly.

There is no shortage of studies that show faith-based organizations have been very successful in delivering helping services to people in need.

Mr. Bush sold his Faith-Based and Community Initiative to the nation, but not to the Congress. Mr. Bush established a gigantic government bureaucracy by issuing executive orders and the rewriting of regulations.

Monies for the new programs were diverted from government agencies that have provided services in the past.

The Faith Based and Community Initiative has been in operation long enough that the actual operation is coming under closer scrutiny.

The first problem with the far-reaching programs is that it has operated with little or no internal or external monitoring. The reviews are now coming in. The programs are getting very mixed reviews.

While no statistics are available, anecdotal information shows that many people are being helped and lives have been changed for the better. No review that I have seen denies a significant positive impact on the people served, even though the impact cannot be statistically quantified.

Those who are now taking a serious look at the programs sound a very loud alarm, however. By regulation, the Bush administration has removed requirements for professional qualifications for employees who act as therapists and counselors.

Restrictions against discrimination in hiring have been removed. Jews, Muslims and gay persons are victims of harsh hiring discrimination. Many faith-based grant recipients are openly using religious conversion as a tool of therapy.

In her book “Kingdom Coming,” Michelle Goldberg devotes a chapter to her research on the Faith-Based program. While she confirms many positive outcomes with clients, she makes a devastating analysis of the abuses of the program.

The chapter is entitled “The Faith-Based Gravy Train.” Her evaluation is that the federal government has become a major funder of the recruitment programs of the Christian Right.

Baptist Joint Committee (a lobby organization for separation of church and state) and Americans United for Separation of Church and State have sounded loud warnings about the operation of Bush’s Faith-Based and Community Initiative. They see it as a major challenge to the Establishment Clause.

Before his Inauguration, Barak Obama surprised many people by announcing that he will continue the Faith-Based program, though he has promised that regulations will be changed and oversight will be put in place.

However, what Obama faces is a program that is now institutionalized and staffed by people trained in the Bush understanding of Compassionate Conservatism.
A major organizational innovation has taken place in our country and has been largely unnoticed.  Many of us were not paying attention because of a war in Iraq and other pressing matters. It is time we took notice.

The Rev. Howard Bess is pastor emeritus of Church of the Covenant, an American Baptist church in Palmer, Alaska.  His e-mail address is hdbss@mtaonline.net.  

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