The legislative part of President Bush's faith-based initiative died in the Senate last week, the victim of Democratic intransigence and a failed White House political strategy.
The final blow came on Nov. 14 when Democrats refused to give "unanimous consent" to consideration of the Senate version of a bill the House of Representatives passed last year. Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and other Democrats said that they needed more time to consider a decisive change in church-state relations. Senate leaders said there was no time for that during the short, "lame duck" session now underway.
But Republicans also contributed to the demise by developing a bill so weakened, in an unsuccessful attempt to win substantial Democratic support, that conservative Christian groups did not fight to keep it alive. It's uncertain whether a bill more consistent with the compassionate conservative vision would have fared any better, but it's clear that on this issue the White House departed from its usual procedure of securing the base and then casting about for allies. Under the leadership of John DiIulio last year, the attempt to solicit liberal allies appeared to drive the whole process ("Rolling the dice," Aug. 4, 2001).
President Bush's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives now has a new head, Jim Towey. As this year's bill was being laid to rest last week, he told WORLD that the new plan was to start with reform of federal regulations that hinder the anti-poverty work of religious groups. Recommendations are heading to President Bush, and Mr. Towey said that "he will certainly be rolling out decisions on administrative changes in the next month or two."
Mr. Towey acknowledged that evangelicals and others had reason to be suspicious about any federal efforts: "Faith-based communities have been stiff-armed by the federal government for years. They've been excluded, discriminated against." He promised to be an advocate for "the right of faith-based groups to be in the public square." He would not be specific, though, as to whether programs that thoroughly integrate biblical teaching with the provision of material help would be eligible to receive direct government funding ("Mud Bowl," March 9, 2002).
Mr. Towey did note the judicial trend toward allowing broad participation by religious groups in programs that make use of indirect aid, such as vouchers. Such an approach would also reduce the danger of corruption: "You see groups so desperate on federal grants that they've lost their spiritual essence, and that's a sad, sad state of affairs," he noted, while warning potential recipients of governmental aid, "Make sure it's not the lifeblood of your organization. Make sure you can say no."
A renewed legislative attempt is likely next year, and a White House fooled once by the hope of picking up broad support on the left for the faith-based initiative should not be fooled again.