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Faith card or race card?

National | Supporters of "charitable choice" go negative as others raise questions about the proposal

Issue: "Aging in place," March 31, 2001

in Washington-Washington continued to be abuzz last week with debate about how to structure the Bush administration's faith-based initiative: Monday morning, March 19
In a very small crimson room with a very large chandelier-about the size and shape of a midsize car-18 black ministers and community activists stand shoulder-to-shoulder before the Washington press. Since many of those leaders, along with 93 percent of black voters, opposed George W. Bush's election last November, they are announcing something that Republicans would normally be cheering about: their enthusiastic support for the White House faith-based initiative. The moment is spoiled, though, as Boston minister Eugene Rivers engages in race-baiting. Christian conservatives including Robert Woodson (who is black), Richard Land, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson had criticized the "discretionary grants" section of the initiative for several reasons, including its big-government tendencies and its potential for discriminating against evangelical programs. But Rev. Rivers maintains his expressed view that conservatives do not want resources "to go to people who are poor, black, and brown." He asserts, "When it became clear that the focus of the office was going to be focusing on the most needy in the inner cities, then there was this hysterical outcry from certain elements on the extreme right." When WORLD challenges Rev. Rivers to name which conservatives oppose faith-based initiatives for people who are black or brown, he changes the subject to Pat Robertson's objections to taxpayer funding for Muslims, and then suggests he would provide a fuller answer after the press conference. After the bright TV lights are turned off, reporters surround Rev. Rivers and ask him for recent evidence of Christian conservative bigotry. Rev. Rivers declares, "I don't have to read that to know it. You don't have to say something to be racist." Monday, early afternoon
Rev. Rivers and 14 other black church leaders meet at the White House with President Bush and John DiIulio, head of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. After the meeting Mr. Bush tells reporters that he saw his visitors as "supportive of our efforts to empower people to be able to make choices as to where to find services and help." Many of the leaders accompany Mr. DiIulio a few blocks north to the National City Christian Church, where he is scheduled to give a speech to the liberal group Call to Renewal. Perched high above the crowd in a white marble pulpit, Mr. DiIulio reacts to the standing ovation he receives: "Don't do that. I'll get used to it." He does not say anything about race-baiting against conservatives, but hails a "remarkable contingent of old friends," including Rev. Rivers, and praises Call to Renewal's work to "promote racial reconciliation." Mr. DiIulio speaks near a large stained glass window picturing the work of National City's last famous church member, Lyndon B. Johnson. He praises "pockets of excellence" within Mr. Johnson's War on Poverty but says, "After three decades of increased government spending, we still have too many pockets of isolated deprivation, especially in urban America." Mr. DiIulio also declares the spiritual side of drug counseling to be "vital," but he praises Catholic Charities, an organization that many call the leading example of a religious agency becoming a government lookalike under the influence of federal money. (The Capital Research Center has noted that Catholic Charities receives about 2/3 of its funding from government and has become "just another government contractor.") Monday evening
With the unveiling of legislation on the faith-based initiative less than 40 hours away, Senate sponsor Rick Santorum is finishing a day at the office by walking past some living legends on their way in and out of the Senate chamber. As Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) passes by with an entourage, Sen. Santorum (R-PA) tells WORLD that his faith-based legislation will be tacked on to other major bills; the House, meanwhile, will wrap its ideas in one package. Then 98-year-old former segregationist Strom Thurmond ambles down the hall very slowly with the help of an aide, and Sen. Santorum declares "nothing of value" in the race card played by Eugene Rivers. Mr. Santorum praises conservatives for raising concerns about government pressure toward secularization and the creation of dependency. He says he is not "wedded to discretionary grants" and hopes to empower individuals to choose faith-based services, but he suspects that "anything that lessens government control could be a problem with the Democrats." He does prefer to replace the current term for government help to faith-based groups, "charitable choice"-which means officials choosing groups-with the more decentralized "beneficiary choice." Tuesday afternoon
The debate over faith-based initiatives is getting hotter, which these days means: talk television! On MSNBC's Hardball, Robert Woodson, who heads the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, is defending the core Bush principles while under sharp attack from the Rev. Al Sharpton. Mr. Woodson notes that faith-based programs are generally more effective and less expensive than traditional bureaucratic alternatives. Rev. Sharpton keeps yelling that the faith-based plan is a ploy to distract people from the spending cuts that purportedly will be forced by the Bush tax cut. Should the faith-based initiative be portrayed primarily as an election strategy? Away from the studio, Mr. Woodson explains, "I don't believe that this is a political ploy to win black votes," but its success would have political repercussions: "If it's effectively established and administered and empowers organizations in those communities and has an impact, then he [Bush] should receive a political benefit from that. He earns it the right way." Mr. Woodson suggests that the Bush approach in Texas-where he fought for the drug addiction-fighters at Teen Challenge when their faith-based methods were under attack-could be duplicated nationally. Governor Bush's share of the black vote increased dramatically from 1994 to 1998 as he was seen as willing to stand up for faith-based groups harassed by bureaucracy. To avoid bogging down the faith-based initiative in church-state issues, Mr. Woodson argues that the best and most politically feasible approaches focus on individuals, not government, with charitable tax credits, vouchers, and a change in third-party insurance payments leading the way. If Blue Cross-Blue Shield will pay for drug rehabilitation at a secular clinic, Mr. Woodson asks, why won't it pay for treatment at an effective religious clinic? Wednesday morning
It's a miserable, rainy, windy day outside, but spirits are high inside the Cannon House Office Building. Republican Rep. J.C. Watts and Democratic Rep. Tony Hall are introducing the Community Support Act of 2001, the House version of the faith-based initiative. One publicist even proposes that the occasion demands "a-hootin' and a-hollerin'." But not everyone is happy. A young press aide with Americans United for the Separation of Church and State hands out a press release, in which leader Barry Lynn crows, "This bill doesn't have a prayer." Flanked by legislators and workers from faith-based groups on risers, Congressman Watts declares: "For too long, we have excluded these individuals from helping us help others. In the effort to wipe out poverty and hopelessness, we need all the soldiers we can muster." One star soldier at the pep rally, Edward Harris, was part of the youth violence problem and is now a 23-year-old youth counselor with Violence-Free Zone, which works to keep the peace in the neighborhoods east of the U.S. Capitol. Murders there have decreased dramatically. He says it takes "just a second to think that, 'if I do this to this, God's gonna see that. If I do this to this, God will hold me accountable for that when I come to face Him.' That little belief right there can save a lot of lives." The House press conference bleeds over into the Senate's unveiling of Sen. Santorum's and Sen. Joseph Lieberman's smaller bill. Both plans include the expansion of tax deductions for charitable donations to the millions of taxpayers who do not itemize on their returns. Both allow individuals to give Individual Retirement Account funds to charities without an income tax hit. Both have nearly identical provisions on expanding tax deductions for businesses making food donations to charities, and both would set up "Individual Development Accounts," a matched dollar-for-dollar savings program to enable working-poor families to save up for housing, college education, or small business development. But the Senate bill does not tackle hard church-state questions. Only the House package proposes expansion of many federal grant programs to include some faith-based groups and exclude others, including many evangelical groups. Even in summary form, the legislation promises to provoke hearings full of the primary debate over the touchy relationship of government and religion. Thursday
In a White House briefing, spokesman Ari Fleischer expresses confidence that all sides can come together to support the initiative. But meanwhile, the debate intensifies. Legislative technicians promise that the language of the House bill will prevent federal, state, or local government money from being used for "sectarian worship, instruction, or proselytization." But the next provision declares that a faith-based recipient of funds will retain independence and "control over the definition, development, practice, and expression of its religious beliefs." But how can both provisions be true for an evangelical recipient group-or a conservative Catholic, orthodox Jewish, or orthodox Muslim one-that emphasizes religious teaching throughout its program? Tax-credit proposals-which don't have the government scrutinizing the content of faith-based teaching-may gain traction as a way of helping organizations of all kinds to retain their integrity.

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