Bush's Leap of Faith May Fall Flat

Why support is fading for the President's faith-based initiative

On the campaign trail, George W. Bush pledged to "rally the armies of compassion" if elected President. Instead, the foot soldiers of his faith-based initiative are on the edge of all-out mutiny. While Bush had expected criticism from the Left, the outcry from the Religious Right could prompt him to reevaluate one of his touchstone issues.

Almost immediately after taking office, Bush moved swiftly to make good on his promise of a "compassionate conservatism" by unveiling a plan to incorporate so-called faith-based organizations, or religious charities, into the social service network. Yet in seeking to appease critics on the Left upset about further breaching of the barricade between church and state, Bush has touched off a firestorm of opposition from the Right. Marvin Olasky, one of the architects of compassionate conservatism and a former Bush adviser, says the faith-based program's rules will so dilute the mission of religious groups that evangelicals won't participate. He points out that Teen Challenge, a nationwide antidrug program singled out for praise by candidate Bush, would not qualify for federal aid because it uses religion to promote its message.

DAUNTING RULES. Even if Bush calms the fears of Olasky and others, his initiative still may fall flat. Judging by the government's past experience in funding religious organizations that provide job training for welfare recipients, faith-based organizations aren't likely to jump at the chance to become Uncle Sam's partner. One reason is that the method of disbursing funds inherently favors groups that are up and running, not those with hefty startup costs. And since fundamentalist churches are less likely than others to have existing social programs, the initiative's reimbursement rules will seem daunting. Rather than ushering new faith-based players into public service, Bush's plan may give more money to groups that have been pulling down federal funds for years. Ironically, the biggest beneficiary may be African American churches, not the Christian Right groups that form the core of his support.

Behind Bush's Executive Order creating an Office of Faith-Based & Community Initiatives in the White House and similar offices in five agencies was a simple assignment: Clear away regulations that impede religious groups from bidding on federal contracts. To spearhead the effort, Bush tapped University of Pennsylvania political science professor John J. DiIulio Jr., long an advocate of using religious charities to achieve national goals.

Before the ink was dry on the President's orders, however, leaders on all sides of the political spectrum began launching fusillades. But it's the Religious Right that threatens to stop the program cold. "The danger is [that] biblically oriented groups struggling for funds could come under pressure to change their programs," gripes Olasky. Evangelist Jerry Falwell, chancellor of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., has complained that Uncle Sam might wind up writing checks to groups such as the Church of Scientology or the Jehovah's Witnesses.

Falwell's advice is likely to be ignored. To pass constitutional muster, the Bush plan can't discriminate among church programs even if they are run by Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam, a group some view as anti-Semitic.

The problems go much deeper than that, however. One recent poll shows that most faith-based groups are not interested in bidding for federal money. Experts say that the long lag between securing contracts and receiving checks is a major deterrent. "It's not like thousands of organizations are ready to jump into the fray," says William L. Raymond, president of FaithWorks Consulting Service in Holland, Mich., which forms partnerships between churches and state and local governments.

STUMBLING BLOCK. That reluctance was evident in 1996 when Congress created Charitable Choice as part of welfare reform. The program allows faith-based groups to receive tax dollars as long as the money is not used for proselytizing or sectarian worship. Churches can discriminate on the basis of religion when hiring staff but cannot insist that clients be of the same religion. At first, Charitable Choice applied only to block grants given to states to provide welfare services, but Congress later extended it to a few other programs.

Most faith-based organizations were uninterested. Of the 12 states participating, Indiana conducted the most aggressive outreach effort. After distributing 10,000 postcards to houses of worship and conducting informational sessions, the state granted contracts to just 42 groups.

The major stumbling block appears to be how funds are disbursed. Under Indiana's performance-based system, for example, a church running a job-training program gets checks as clients pass an exam, land a job, and remain employed for 60 days. For churches without an existing program, the prospect of hiring staff and buying supplies when federal funds may never arrive--or may arrive long after costs are incurred--is enough to dissuade them from signing up. "Small churches can't make a significant investment in program infrastructure up front," says the Reverend Bud Walter of the 70-member Immanuel United Church of Christ in Crothersville, Ind. "Most of the grants went to the organizations that were already in business. So much for the initiative part of faith-based initiatives."

Even tougher is the system DiIulio has proposed for evangelical groups that view conversion as an integral part of their mission. These organizations, DiIulio told the National Association of Evangelicals, will receive federal help only if clients use a voucher to enroll in their programs. Evangelicals who hoped to cure drug addicts by urging them to accept Jesus Christ could find it difficult to hire counselors and outreach workers when their funding is uncertain.

Even though Bush planned his initiative as a way to curry favor with his religious base, the groups most likely to tap into government funds aren't evangelicals but African American congregations. Black churches are far more likely than other congregations to seek public support for social service activities, according to a 1998 National Congregations Study, a survey of more than 1,200 religious groups. In Indiana, over half of the Charitable Choice contracts went to African American churches.

In the end, Bush may not reap much political capital from his faith-based proposal. "Rallying the armies of compassion" may have been a catchy trope on the hustings, but these days, another phrase seem more apropos: No good deed goes unpunished.

By Alexandra Starr in Washington

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