By David Waters
Former “faith-based” officials of the Bush White House, which often sought the support of religious leaders for its policies, claim the Obama White House is using its “faith-based initiative” to enlist religious leaders to support the new health care law.
Obama officials claim the president’s conference call last month to talk to hundreds of religious leaders about the new law was purely informational. But Jim Towey, a former Catholic college president who directed George W. Bush’s faith-based initiative, has another interpretation.
“Do we really want taxpayer-funded bureaucrats mobilizing ministers to go out to all the neighborhoods and spread the good news of universal coverage?” Towey wrote in The Wall Street Journal last month.
We don’t want taxpayer-funded bureaucrats mobilizing ministers to spread the doctrine of any political party. But isn’t that one of the unintended consequences of the federal government’s 15-year effort to turn faith-based ministries into government-supported agencies?
Alas. If there was one issue on which we thought we could count on Democrats and Republicans to agree, it was the need for government to “partner” with faith-based organizations to help people in need.
Bill Clinton (D-Baptist) called it “charitable choice.” Your charity. Our choice.
Al Gore (D-Baptist) called it a “carefully tailored partnership,” as if church and state would wear matching uniforms.
George W. Bush (R-Methodist) turned it into a “faith-based initiative.” Love and other faith-based initiatives, sponsored by the Department of Homeland Eternity.
Barack Obama (D-Undecided) refers to is as an “all-hands-on-deck approach.” Support our policies with your people? Yes, you can.
It’s a noble concept, but ultimately a flawed one, regardless of which party in power is trying to use it to serve its own agenda.
The genesis of what we now call the government’s “faith-based initiative” dates back to the mid-1990s and a wonky policy book called “Reinventing Government: How the Entrepreneurial Spirit is Transforming the Public Sector.”
Authors David Osborne and Ted Gaebler argued persuasively that government is good at figuring out what larger societal problems need to be addressed, but when it comes to fixing those problems, private organizations and especially faith-based charities — social entrepreneurs — are much more efficient and effective.
The solution: let the government do what it does best — make public policy. Then invite private organizations to apply for government funding to carry out those policies.
It all makes sense on paper, in stump speeches and academic white papers. Unfortunately, Uncle Sam doesn’t run a charity. Tax dollars are not donated; they are allocated, ruled, regulated — and heavily politicized.
Democrats accused the Bush administration of trying to turn government agencies into government-funded Christian missions.
“Many have observed that the previous Administration’s Faith-Based Initiative was focused squarely on dollars and cents — promising financial rewards for certain faith-based organizations,” Joshua DuBois, a Pentecostal minister and director of Obama’s White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, wrote in his blog last week.
“Unfortunately, critics held that many of those funds failed to materialize and opportunities to engage in non-financial ways were missed.”
Republicans are accusing the Obama administration of trying to secularize or politicize Christian missions.
“The key problem with the Obama administration’s intent to secularize the operation of religious charities is that there is no work from these charities without employees who share the spiritual and temporal mission . . . Whether religious organizations wish to court the danger of government influence by accepting such funds is another question,” Hunter Baker, a professor of political science at Houston Baptist University, wrote in 2009.
Maybe the problem isn’t the Obama administration’s intent or the Bush administration’s intent. Maybe the key problem is the failure of all recent administration’s to follow the framers’ intent to keep government out of the religion business — and vice versa.
Won’t the so-called “faith-based initiative” always be hopelessly entangled in the politics of whichever party is in power?