Mud bowl

The state of the faith-based initiative

Issue: "View from the Axis," March 9, 2002

It's fourth down and 20 yards to go, it's rained steadily for a year and uniforms are so muddy that it's hard to make out the players' numbers and sometimes even which team they're on. Some journalists say, "Go for it," but the head coach says it's time to punt, and he's probably right.

Readers have been asking about President Bush's faith-based initiative, since I haven't written about it for many months. But that's the story: Mud Bowl, 2001-02. Good things are going on across the country, and some regulatory changes may be in the works in Washington, but it doesn't look like there will be much legislative progress this year.

Oh, Sen. Joe Lieberman visited the Oval Office last month to announce, with President Bush, that he and the administration both want to allow Americans who do not itemize on their income tax forms to be able to deduct charitable contributions of up to $400 for an individual and $800 for a couple. That's good news for all charities.

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And Jim Towey, replacing John DiIulio in the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, is saying to reporters: "No one wants government funds for proselytizing. They don't want any government money funding the promotion of religious belief. I don't either-absolutely not. But I think, at the same time, you don't exclude from the provision of services, organizations that may be the best at delivering those services."

Lots of people can agree with lots of that. No one (that I know of) wants government funds to pay for preaching, door-to-door evangelism, or efforts of that sort. But let's look at three real-life programs that raise issues about "funding the promotion of religious belief."

First, let's say Congress appropriates money for programs to help folks get off welfare and keep from falling back into dependency. Learning to budget and save is an important part of becoming independent. Let's say a study shows that a very effective program on budgeting/saving teaches not just the how-to but the why of good stewardship: Mixed into the teaching are passages from Proverbs and other books of the Bible. If such a program is eligible for grants, is that "promotion of religious belief"?

Second, let's say Congress appropriates money for programs to help homeless folks, many of whom feel inadequate and hopeless. Let's say a study is made of one homeless shelter where those who come are told after dinner that they are made in the image of a wonderful God and that they are therefore also wonderful. The next morning they are expected to join a Bible study about people considered worthless or inconsequential-from Jepthah the Gileadite to Jesus himself, rumored to be illegitimate-who proved to have extraordinary value. The study shows that a higher percentage of those who come to this homeless shelter turn their lives around than do so at other shelters. Should the government supply this shelter with USDA surplus food, as it supplies others? What about dollars for the electricity that heats the food?

Third, let's say Congress appropriates money for programs to fight alcoholism and drug abuse. Let's say a study shows that most of the alcoholics and addicts who complete a particular program are sober and drug-free a year afterwards-an extraordinary result in a field where most programs have success rates of well under 10 percent. This particular program, though, teaches that most people turn to booze or dope to fill holes in their souls, and that the way to fight an addiction is to let Christ fill those holes. If the government goal, to quote Mr. Towey, is not to "exclude from the provision of services, organizations that may be the best at delivering those services," should this program be excluded?

These are tough questions. The Bush campaign position in 1999 and 2000 was that all these groups should be included, but politics and ideological pressures led to their exclusion last year. And even if, somehow, the powers in Washington agree on an inclusive position, questions remain about the appropriate mechanism for inclusion. Direct government grants are very dangerous, because they place great power in the hands of federal administrators. Vouchers or tax credits are much better, because they empower individuals rather than officials.

Since there's no consensus in Washington on these questions, the Bush Administration insisted that any deal reached with Joe Lieberman this year be in effect for only two years. If conservatives do well in this fall's election, the whole question can be reopened in the next Congress, maybe under better conditions. So Bush aides are punting now-and given the past year's mess, I can't blame them.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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