Despite a Decade of Controversy, the ‘Faith-Based Initiative’ Endures

Ten years ago this month, in a campaign speech in Indianapolis, George W. Bush promised to direct $8 billion in federal financing to “armies of compassion” that he believed could combat social ills in ways that government programs could not.

Along with tax cuts, the antiterror fight and the invasion of Iraq, the “faith-based initiative” became a defining policy of the Bush administration. It opened a new front in the culture wars, reignited longstanding constitutional disputes about church and state, and stirred controversies about whether religion was being bent to political purposes.

Opponents of the administration made it a chief point of attack; defenders extolled it: President Bush devoted more than 50 speeches to its virtues, 7 in one 17-day stretch in July 2001 alone.

The controversy boomed at a symbolic level even though there was little clarity about what, exactly, the program involved or how it worked or, for that matter, what the very label “faith-based” covered.

No one has done more to fill this gap with accurate information and analysis than the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy, a project of the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government at the State University of New York. Now the Roundtable has issued a final report, “Taking Stock: The Bush Faith-Based Initiative and What Lies Ahead,” 91 pages of required reading for anyone serious about the topic.

As the title signals, the idea of somehow enlisting the resources of religious groups in the shaping and delivery of government social programs lives on, despite all the controversy. Although some critics hoped to drive a stake through its heart, under President Obama the initiative has found a new life, and a slightly altered name. The White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives is dead! Long live the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships!

“Taking Stock” traces in excruciating detail the Bush administration’s failure to win a firm legislative footing in Congress for letting religious groups with the potential to carry out social programs contract with government agencies on the same terms as other groups while protecting their religious identity.

Although there was consensus on not using government money for proselytizing or holding explicitly religious services, the stumbling block was always whether religious groups could use religious criteria in hiring for taxpayer-supported positions.

Both sides saw the issue as one of discrimination. For Democratic critics, it was a question of using federal financing to discriminate against job seekers on religious grounds. For Republican defenders, it was a question of not discriminating against the right of religious groups, no less than secular organizations, to maintain their own standards and identity.

Despite the legislative stalemate, the Bush administration mounted an extraordinary array of executive orders, rule changes and organizational innovations to push its program. The White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives spawned satellite offices in all cabinet-level departments, plus several quasi-governmental agencies, to increase the opportunities for religious groups to win a role in providing a range of social services.

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