Columnists > Voices

Bureaucracy plus plastic chairs?

A window of opportunity is open now, but maybe not for long

Issue: "Bush: Hail to the chief," Jan. 29, 2005

WASHINGTON, D.C. - "On this day in history. . ." As a kid I liked newspaper stories that started that way. Now, since history moves so fast, I can even write that about an event four years ago: On the cover date of this issue four years ago, Jan. 29, 2001, 30 leaders from faith-based organizations met here with President George W. Bush in the White House to celebrate establishment of the Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives.

The White House meeting, seen as a first step toward reducing governmental anti-religious biases, was like one at the First Baptist Church in Austin a month before, but there the president-elect and participants sat on plastic chairs. On Jan. 29, though, leather chairs and dark paneling suggested that the idea of faith-based social services was more than the marriage of hope and hype: Vision and authority would now be wed.

Evaluating the faith-based initiative four years later, it sometimes seems as if we have the worst of both worlds: bureaucracy and, at the end of the process, only plastic seats. Some of the comments at the Jan. 29 meeting were prescient. Steve Burger of the International Union of Gospel Missions noted the Washington tendency to prefer "people in stainless steel buildings with Ph.D.s" to the real helpers on the streets.

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As it turned out, the past four years have witnessed a successful, progress-stopping alliance of three factions: anti-religious bigots, long-time nonprofit recipients of federal funds, and officials who demand stainless steel professionalism. President Bush recognized the need for little guys of different religions and ideologies to unite against the status quo when he joked to the Jan. 29 group, "Had I a political litmus test as to whether we could work together, the room might be empty." But within months the room largely was empty, in terms of strong support for the initiative.

James Monroe's administration enjoyed an era of good feeling almost two centuries ago, but these days an era lasts no more than a day. The legislative part of the initiative faltered. The original Bush proposal to establish a $500 per person charity tax credit didn't get to first base. Social service voucher plans languished on second. Legislation to provide religious charities with some protection died at third. The administration ended up promulgating good executive orders that could temporarily remove some discrimination against religious groups, but executive orders don't have the staying power of laws.

Overall, the line score of the first four innings of the faith-based initiative reads: No runs, a few bunt singles, lots of errors, and many men left on base. But we're now at the top of the fifth inning, and the faith-based initiative may rally by getting behind the use of social service vouchers. For example, this year $100 million will go to Access to Recovery, a program that allows addicts to seek treatment from religious groups as well as secular ones. Some dollars will be wasted, but over the decades the feds have thrown away billions of dollars on ineffective, stainless steel drug treatment programs. Now, finally, organizations that rely on religious conversion to break addiction can be on a level playing field with all others.

Jim Towey, who took over the Bush faith-based office after its troubled first year, received on Jan. 13 a well-deserved promotion: He is now officially Assistant to the President, with good Oval Office access. He also told WORLD that the voucherized drug-treatment program was "exciting stuff," and "we should be pressuring to have vouchers in other areas-but alas, I never, ever hear a peep from the Hill on this." It's particularly important to move on vouchers since activist courts will try to shut down grant-based programs that give religion a chance: On Jan. 12 U.S. District Judge John Shabaz ruled that federal funding of a prison mentoring program in Arizona was unconstitutionally advancing religion.

If we don't hear lots of peeps from Capitol Hill-and the shouts from people around the country that lead to Washington peeping-Jan. 29, 2001, will be a very minor historical footnote. So, here's an invitation for compassionate conservatives and libertarians to work together to help the poor and reduce governmental power at the same time. Ask your senators and representatives to support vouchers for programs dealing with social needs. The window of opportunity may be open only for a short time.

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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