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THE NATION / RELIGION

Don't Take Bush Plan on Faith

April 29, 2001|SUSAN ANDERSON | Susan Anderson was director of External Affairs for Local Initiatives Support Corp., the nation's largest community-support organization

Changes proposed by President George W. Bush's controversial Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives are radical in the extreme, causing jitters throughout the religious community. Clergy members are divided over the office's aim to hand over society's safety net to churches and other religious institutions. Jewish organizations worry the idea may violate the 1st Amendment. Christian denominations are concerned that if they directly accept government funds, they will, in the words of the late Texas state Rep. Billy Williams, be trading "the cross for the cookie jar."

The administration has its vocal supporters, among them Pentecostal African American ministers, who have squared off against black and white clergy critical of the initiative. Led by the Rev. Eugene F. Rivers 3rd of Azusa Christian Community in Boston and Bishop Charles Blake of West Angeles Church of God in Christ in Los Angeles, these supporters have called some skeptics of the Bush plan racist, contending that their real agenda is to limit the channeling of funds into the inner city. "We're generating a direct challenge to our flat-earth white fundamentalist brothers," Rivers pronounced, "because the black churches haven't been heard from."

The significance of the battle among black and white clergy revolves around the challenges that many African American churches face in serving the poor in their communities. Most black churches in America have memberships of fewer than 200. To meet the needs of their surrounding communities, they are more willing than their white counterparts to seek government funds. According to a 1998 survey of more than 1,200 congregations, 64% of black churches said they would apply for such funds, compared with 28% of white churches.

The problem is that Bush's new office is not designed to support black churches--or any other faith institutions, for that matter--in their drive to renew communities and the lives of the people in them. John DiIulio Jr., who heads the faith-based initiative, says his mission is to remove barriers that religious organizations encounter in seeking federal funds. But there was hardly a groundswell of complaints from believers about obstacles to their participation in government contracts. For generations, religious institutions have operated separate, nonprofit charities, and they have successfully plied their religious mission without violating the rules attached to government funds. In an unprecedented move, the Bush administration wants to throw out the rules, allowing houses of worship to use federal funds to blend their religious and social-service work.

But most congregations have only a limited capacity to take on major social-service functions now provided by government agencies. The California Religious Community Capacity Study, conducted by the Sacramento-based California Council of Churches, USC's Center for Religion and Civic Culture and the Institute for Nonprofit Organization Management at the University of San Francisco, urges congregations and government to cooperate on providing social services under "charitable choice," provisions in the welfare reform law that allow government to fund religious organizations that provide job training to those on public assistance. But the study also acknowledges that because most churches are small, only a handful of larger congregations can afford the volunteer hours or build the infrastructure needed to serve the poor. In addition, the majority of congregations are simply unaware of the charitable-choice provisions. The study recommends technical assistance, forming networks and relying on intermediaries to extend the capacity of individual congregations.

But capacity building--providing long-term training and technical support to inexperienced organizations--isn't on the White House's priority list. One of the architects of the faith-based initiative, Yale professor and Baptist minister Harry Dean Trulear, admits that the office "can't be invested in developing infrastructure and capacity" because of the need for a political "quick payoff." The receiver of that payoff is the Republican Party's right wing, Bush's core constituency. The president may have learned to tone down the belligerent rhetoric of the Christian right in favor of compassionate conservatism. But by striving to transfer social services to religious organizations, he is using the laudable purpose of fighting poverty to deregulate the separation of church and state.

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