Faith Based

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Faith Based.jpgOnce upon a time, in a country far away, what the president cared most about, and what most exercised public debate, was something called a faith-based initiative. The idea was that religiously inspired organizations could do a better job delivering social services than mere secular or, God knows, governmental agencies. Or at least could do just as good a job but were being discriminated against because of unreasonable and even illegal secularist prejudices. So an office was set up in the White House to foster the faith-based, with legislation supposed to go with it. But then came Terror, and the faith-based business of the nation turned out to lie elsewhere, and the legislation died in Congress, and just about everybody forgot about that White House office, except just before the last election, when one of the people who used to work there wrote a book revealing it all to be a politics-driven fraud and that was one one more straw that broke the back of the Republican control of Congress.
Last week, though, presumably because the president is toting up whatever pluses he can tote about his administration for the historians, a conference on the whole faith-based thing was held at the White House, which spawned an op-ed piece in the Washington Post by the former director of the office, Jim Towey. Towey would like the presumptive presidential candidates of their respective parties to talk about the old initiative, and to that end poses a series of questions for them to address. Most are innocuous enough, in a way that suggests that no fair-minded person could possibly oppose what the president has had in mind.

In fact, the initiative started out as a bipartisan, motherhood-and-apple-pie exercise, with a Democrat as the point man and a president who seemed interested in proving his compassionate conservative bona fides. But the Mayberry Machiavellis in the White House saw a political wedge issue in them thar hills, and took their stand on the need for faith-based providers to be able to hire their own kind to do the work being paid for with public dollars. Congressional Democrats would not let this pass, reasoning that it was one thing to exempt religious institutions from non-discriminatory hiring laws when it came to their own spiritual business (like hiring pastors), quite another when it came to the public’s business.
Towey knows that this was the sticking point as well as anyone, but he chooses to elide the issue with this piece of rhetorical legerdemain:

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and a later Supreme Court case permit religious groups to hire on the basis of faith. An Orthodox Jewish organization, after all, could not maintain its identity if it were forced to hire Southern Baptists or atheists. If these same groups want federal funding to support their good works, however, they face a maze of contradictory rules. In the case of some poverty-fighting programs, Congress prohibits religious hiring; yet with others, such hiring is expressly permitted. This has led to a logjam of social welfare legislation in need of reauthorization. How will you break this impasse?

The answer is simple. Require all faith-based institutions to hire on a non-discriminatory basis for any work being undertaken with public funds. Whether or not one believes in such an approach in principle, in practice that’s the only way a Congress controlled by Democrats would give the nod to a revived initiative, which bit of legislation would restore said initiative to motherhood-and-apple-pie status. Oh yeah. And I might do something about that logo, with the white hand reaching down to enclose the brown hand in its grip. OK?

  • Very good, thoughtful article. I also agree with your assessment 100%. Regardless of the faith, they should follow the ancient wisdom in these words – “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28. Whenever a human is treated differently than the masses, we should take a cold, hard look at the situation. A hard look indeed. Maybe even the mirror. Michael L. Gooch, SPHR Author of Wingtips with Spurs: Cowboy Wisdom for Today’s Business Leaders

  • Bob Wineburg

    I read the same OPED by Mr.Towey and had quite a different reaction. But first a couple of points of disagreement with your piece. (1) There is no way that “in fact, the initiative started out as a bipartisan, motherhood-and-apple-pie exercise, with a Democrat as the point man and a president who seemed interested in proving his compassionate conservative bona fides.”
    This is the impression the leaders wanted the public to believe but it just isn’t true.
    I have followed this Initiative long before the “get go” and wrote about the people behind the scenes in the Faith-Based Initiative in my book:Faith-Based Inefficiency:The Follies of Bush’s Initiatives, including the Big D Democrat, John Dilulio who participated in many Manhattan and Hudson Institute events that shaped the the spin about the need for this initiative.
    (2)What my major departure with the analysis here is not on the substance of the argument but on the fact that Towey is still shaping the discourse and luring in people on his terms. The whole Civil Rights spin came out of a government document Called UNLEVEL PLAYING FIELD: Barriers to Participation by Faith-Based and Community Organizations in Federal Social Service Programs, which came to be, and was written by Stanley Carlson Thies after the first attempt to sell the Initiative,based on pointing to the research showing churches being more effective at service delivery than secular organizations, didn’t take hold at all.Why, because it wasn’t true. I also write about this flawed but unexamined Civil Rights strategy and the weak document it was based on.
    Towey also noted in his article that 70 mayors have Faith Based Initiatives. Well there are 16,000 cites in the US and after 7 years there is buy in from just 70 Mayors? Once upon a time this Initiative was about Results. Imagine a baseball player going 70 for 16,000 and claiming success as a hitter. How does Towey get away with this?
    The real narrative ought to be about something else.
    Even the early findings of the current research of my colleague Ram Cnaan from the University of Pennsylvania, and I are conducting in Wilmington Delaware, where we are examining both social service activities of congregations themselves and partnerships agencies have with them, warrants a brand new kind of discussion that starts with a bottom up question: How can communities match existing resources, and develop new ones to combat growing community needs? Agencies in our study named partnerships and the kinds of activities in which they are involved with forty seven percent of the community’s 400 congregations. Seventy one percent of the agencies in the United Way Network named at least one partnership through which congregations lend support with volunteers, money, use of congregational facilities and or provide goods and services. One division of state government named 22 local partnerships with congregations, while many nongovernmental agencies like the Red Cross named even more. My research in the early 1990s found the same sets of partnerships but was considered a Bible Belt anomaly and a simple case study as the work examined Greensboro North Carolina.In some ways that criticism was true. However,I argued then that I saw much of this activity, but not all, come to be as a result of the Reagan Budget cuts of the 1980s –a nationwide phenomena. The data proved my point that congregations have been part of community support system and their partnerships range from the complex and mature like the Red Cross, to flailing brand new ones.
    We have much more to do in our analysis of what some will undoubtedly call a Northeast anomaly. But one thing is crystal clear to me. The next administration would serve the country well to support a faith-based initiative that is not a culture war in disguise. We need to fight poverty, not each other. The way to go about it is to find ways to provide resources to strengthen every community’s existing partnerships among religious congregations, nonprofit agencies and yes, government services. When Mr.Towey and other apologists for the Faith Based Initiative start talking about strengthening the whole local human service system by chronicling community needs and cataloging community resources and matching them with 21st century planning techniques, I might get lured into Towey’s, Dilulio’s and Kuo’s game. The religious community is a limited partner with government and nonprofits. The partnership can be made better — and that is it. And it must be done with local buy in and not be a Washington run puppet show.