IFAS | Freedom Writer | Winter 2001 | faithbased.html

Bush establishes office for
'faith-based' action

On December 20, 2000, President-elect George W. Bush met with about 30 religious leaders at the First Baptist Church in Austin, Texas to develop a plan for curing the nation's ills through the ministries of religious organizations. These "ills" include crime, poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, and lack of affordable housing. Euphemistically called "faith-based" organizations, Bush believes that religious organizations succeed where others fail "because they change hearts, they convince a person to turn their life over to Christ." He said, "In every instance where my administration sees a responsibility to help people, we will look first to faith-based organizations that have shown their ability to save and change lives."

Bush is so serious about this approach that he's setting up a White House Office of Faith-Based Action. Bush chose Don Eberly of Lancaster, Pennsylvania to head the transition team of six to develop the new office of faith-based action. Eberly, who converted to evangelical Christianity at a tent-revival meeting, and who once studied for the ministry, believes that evangelical Christians need to shape the culture.

"There are plenty of evangelicals in positions of power, especially legislative power," he said. "The top three officers in the US House of Representatives are evangelical Christians. But Christians are not heading powerful newspapers, television stations, film studios, academic institutions, and network news - you search far and wide to find Christians in those arenas. Too many have behaved as though politics is on a par with the church in the life of a Christian.

"It's odd to me," Eberly continued, "that Christians understand the church, politics and power, but don't affirm the importance of shaping the culture. Culture is of higher importance than law making. The problems of violence, alienation, and anger at the collapse of the family, the sexual mores - these all come directly from the culture. Legislative answers to these problems do not exist."

Eberly, a past member of the Council for National Policy, is involved with a number of conservative non-profit organizations, including the National Fatherhood Initiative, the Civil Society Project, the Commonwealth Foundation, the Institute for American Values, George Gallup International Institute, Council on Civil Society, National Commission on Civil Renewal, and the Healthy Culture Initiative.

Of the clergy attending the Austin meeting, only one, Daniel Lapin, was a rabbi. Lapin, a popular speaker at the Christian Coalition's annual Road to Victory conference, is well known for his support of the Christian Right agenda. He founded and heads Toward Tradition, a Jewish conservative organization with identical goals of the Religious Right.

University of Pennsylvania professor John J. DiIulio Jr., a Catholic, will head the new federal office. He identifies himself as a new Democrat. DiIulio was chosen for the position partly because of his extensive work with black pastors in urban areas. Nearly two years ago DiIulio met with Bush, Olasky, and Goldsmith to lay the groundwork for the program.

Ironically, a Jewish man, Stephen Goldsmith, the former mayor of Indianapolis and a current Bush advisor, will chair a national advisory board that will complement the new Office of Faith-Based Action. Goldsmith will also serve as President Bush's official advisor on the issue. "This will refute the predictable outrage from Jewish groups about the 'Christianizing of America,'" Rabbi Lapin said. "I don't think Goldsmith will be effective in Christianizing anybody - but he will be effective in rolling back the obstacles of religion."

President-elect Bush said, "America is now reaping the harvest of epidemic secularism that was unleashed during the Clinton years. The social disasters that worry almost all Americans have their roots in the ruthless extirpation of faith in public life."

Of Bush's meeting with leaders of faith-based organizations, Lapin said, "The fact that he took time out to meet with religious leaders made an immensely powerful statement; it parallels Clinton making homosexuals in the military his first act in office."

The fact is that George W. Bush didn't "take time out" to meet with religious leaders - this was an essential part of his agenda from the beginning. From the outset of his presidential campaign, Bush advocated the deployment of faith-based organizations to run the nation's social programs. He termed it "compassionate conservatism."

In his book Compassionate Conservatism, Bush advisor Marvin Olasky carefully crafts an argument in favor of government funding for faith-based organizations. Olasky writes that "no one today is proposing a move toward multiple establishment of religion - worship services are clearly activities with which the state should not be involved." However, he believes that faith-based groups that receive government funding for their social work should be allowed to proselytize their charges.

Indeed, Chuck Colson's Prison Fellowship Ministries and InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI) is based on a commitment to belief in Jesus Christ. The 200 or so inmates who chose to accept Jesus as their savior at the Carol S. Vance Unit at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice live in relative comfort compared to the rest of the Texas prison population. In fact, these prisoners, who are immersed in prayer, Bible study, and Christian fellowship, are called "members," not inmates. InnerChange is open to all faiths - as long as inmates agree to "participate in a Christ-centered, biblically based program." The program is based on the assumption that crime is "the result of a sinful heart." Jack Cowley, IFI's national director of operations, said, "I told a Muslim going through the program that if he didn't have a relationship with Jesus, he was going to hell."

Even faith has its limit, though. The program doesn't accept sex offenders, very few violent offenders, and those who pose a security risk.

Currently, Texas provides security, housing, and food for inmates in the IFI program. Prison Fellowship raises the $500,000 annual operating budget. However, Cowley said that IFI is asking the Texas state legislature to provide $1.5 million dollars for an expanded program.

In 1996, Marvin Olasky headed a 16-member Governor's Advisory Task Force on Faith-Based Community Service Groups appointed by George W. Bush. The group issued a report called "Faith in Action: A New Vision for Church-State Cooperation in Texas." The report serves as the basis for Bush's faith-based initiatives.

George W. Bush is so pleased with the IFI's prison program that he has promised to bring faith-based programs to at least four federal prisons.

Bush has also cited as a model the ministry of Victory Fellowship in San Antonio. Victory Fellowship works to deliver drug addicts from their addiction through faith in Jesus Christ.

In 1996, Senator John Ashcroft - now Attorney General - attached without any notice an amendment, which was intended to gut the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, to the welfare reform bill. President Clinton signed the bill into law.

Ashcroft's amendment, known as the "charitable choice" provision (and is closely related to "faith-based action"), allows religious organizations to administer social programs as long as there are secular alternatives. It permits government social services to be administered inside a church or house of worship; grants a right to religious contractors to display any kind of religious symbols where government funded services are provided, and allows religious contractors to discriminate in hiring employees, who are paid with taxpayer funds. It also grants all religious organizations a statutory right to be eligible to contract with a state to administer social services. This right can be enforced with a lawsuit against the state. Furthermore, this federal legislation prevents states from requiring that religious social service providers deliver services in an environment free from proselytizing symbols and expressions.

Charitable choice allows religious organizations to require that employees paid with taxpayer dollars adhere to the "religious tenets and teachings" of the religious institutions. The legislation also mandates that employees follow rules regarding off-the-job behavior, including consumption of alcoholic beverages.

In other words, the amendment not only excludes non-believers from government-funded employment, but also allows groups to advance religious doctrines with taxpayer money. While out-and-out proselytization is prohibited, religious organizations are allowed to retain the "practice and expression of its religious beliefs."

Christianity Today asked Bush about the feasibility of government funding for faith-based organizations. "Won't this plan blur the line between church-state separation?" Bush replied, "That's the big question. I don't think it will. And the reason is that we're funding people and programs, not institutions. Some of my opponents worry about proselytization. I believe the power of the church is its capacity to change the heart, and we should not force the church to change its mission."

Proponents of church/state separation denounce these schemes by the religious right known as charitable choice, compassionate conservatism, and faith-based action. Steve Benen of Americans United for Separation of Church and State said the IFI prison program in Texas is unconstitutional because "it is government endorsement of religious conversions. For the state to allow prisoners to be segregated into those who are willing to be converted and then to give them special treatment-a safer environment, better living conditions, more access to family-that's not only unconstitutional, it's blatantly unfair."

Concerning government funding of faith-based organizations to help the poor, Richard Foltin, of the American Jewish Committee, said, "It's important to draw a line between aiding the poor and trying to convert them."

Brent Walker, of the Baptist Joint Committee, said, "We think it's unconstitutional and will result in invasive regulation and excessive entanglement between church and state."

In his book Compassionate Conservatism, Marvin Olasky wrote, "Even evangelically oriented funders are well aware that faith in Christ is not sufficient in itself to build a successful organization. They know that not every faith-based organization is a winner and that Christians can be as bad as charity as anyone else." He offered a solution that Bush - who wrote the book's forward - has taken to heart. "A White House office of advocacy for faith-based organizations could use the presidential bully pulpit to shine a spotlight on the good groups." Thus, the Office of Faith-Based Action was born.

Sources: Christianity Today, Dallas Observer, The Austin Chronicle, The Jewish Week, Sunday News (Lancaster, PA), Christian Living, Penthouse, Austin American-Statesman, The Indianapolis Star, Associated Press, About, Facts for Action, Freedom Writer.

© 2001 Institute for First Amendment Studies, Inc.