Bush's Charity Plan Hasn't Got a Prayer

The President means well when he encourages corporate support for faith-based groups, but religion and business just don't mix

By Richard S. Dunham

It's obvious that George W. Bush's born-again experience a decade ago has fundamentally altered his life. Not only has he given his life over to Jesus Christ in a spiritual sense, he has used his various public positions as pulpits for preaching the virtues of giving money to religious groups that provide social services ranging from day care to prison evangelism.

In that context, it's not surprising that Bush saw an opportunity to preach the gospel of faith-based charity to a group of America's most prominent CEOs on June 20. At a gathering of the Business Roundtable in the White House East Room, the President lamented "how abysmal corporate giving is to religious organizations whose sole intent is to help people -- people who have heard the call" of their Lord.


  As pure as Bush's motives are, his dressing down of the business community is misguided and naive. If there's one subject that CEOs try to avoid more than politics, it's religion. When corporations get involved in partisan politics, they instantly anger half of their customers. But when business leaders tread on religious subjects, they fear they will alienate the vast majority of their customers who aren't of that same sect that is being rewarded with special treatment.

Imagine if some major New York area corporation like AT&T donated millions to the Nation of Islam for well-intentioned programs to convince fathers to take responsibility for their children. Automatically, how many Fundamentalist Protestant and Jewish customers would object? Or if Coca-Cola donated money to a religious pre-school set up by a synagogue in the Atlanta suburbs? Or if Houston-based Enron Inc. funded Catholic charities to provide health services to illegal Mexican immigrants in South Texas? This is very explosive stuff.

Each of these hypothetical situations would meet Bush's charge to the Business Roundtable execs to "address the issue of funding faith-based and community-based groups, whose sole purpose is to make somebody's life better." But they would cause the corporations far more grief than they would generate goodwill.

The President's request also goes against the trend in corporate giving. Rather than giving to a wide variety of local charities, more businesses are choosing to focus their charitable endeavors on causes related to their core business. Microsoft and Compaq, for example, donate their products to educational institutions. Calphalon, the high-end cookware maker, supplies its equipment -- rather than simply handing over dollars -- to homeless shelters. And American Express has donated a small amount to charity every time its customers make a purchase.


  While we can debate whether corporations -- and top executives -- are sufficiently generous when it comes to charitable contributions, it is indisputable that leading U.S. businesses give billions to good causes.

That's not to say that Bush shouldn't urge execs to give their own money to local churches that provide social services, or to mosques, synagogues, and Buddhist temples. Indeed, Bush probably would do more by using his own so-called "bully pulpit" to urge all Americans to give money to faith-based projects. It probably would be a wise idea to make it a personal cause, just as Nancy Reagan made her anti-drugs "just say no" campaign a national crusade.

There are plenty of other subjects that Bush has every right to prod corporations to embrace. A few examples: improving public schools, creating mentor programs, and expanding trade. Each of these areas is good for America, good for corporations, and good for the next generation of American workers.


  But it's a lot different for the President to demand that corporations wade into the dangerous thicket of religion. Or to ask taxpayers to pick up the tab for religious programs that they might not approve of.

Bush's faith-based initiative is in trouble on Capitol Hill because liberals and conservatives both have well-founded concerns about real-world implementation of a compassionate concept. The President needs to change his strategy. But it's a big mistake to lobby Corporate America, as he seems bent on doing.

Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BW Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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