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A Bush-era victory in culture wars: faith-based initiatives

Despite federal budget cuts, faith-based initiatives appear to be a Bush victor in the culture wars. Experts say its legacy is that it overcame the cultural resistance to using religious organizations as part of social service delivery.

By G. Jeffrey MacDonaldCorrespondent / March 25, 2012

Despite government funding cuts, faith-based initiatives continue – a victory of the culture wars of the Bush era. continue on. Nala Booze (r.), is a recipient of a volunteer mentor program for children with a parent in prison. This article part of the cover project in the March 26 issue of The Christian Science Monitor weekly magazine.

Ann Hermes / Staff

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Federal budget cuts wiped out the $49 million Mentoring Children of Prisoners (MCP) program last September, effectively ending one of the signature domestic social service programs created under the George W. Bush administration's faith-based initiative.

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But it's not the end of the Bush legacy of government partnerships with religious social service providers. Former President Bush's effort to make the social safety net more religious was one of the flash points of the culture wars that raged as he came to office in 2001: Funding religious groups well placed in communities to serve the needy was criticized for the potential for proselytizing and hiring bias using tax dollars.

Today, experts say the initiatives sparked more political debate than meaningful change to the social service landscape. Perhaps most important, the initiatives – carried forward in different ways by the Obama administration – "overcame the 'culture of resistance' " to such government-religious partnerships, noted a 2009 study of the program by the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government and the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy.

"Of all the signature initiatives of the Bush era ... faith-based initiatives [policy] has managed to survive," says Lew Daly, a senior fellow at Demos, a New York policy research group. "That means Bush was onto something about this question of church-state partnerships."

Though a far cry from what Mr. Bush envisioned, what remains is a strong government infrastructure for mobilizing churches.

Faith-based initiatives under Bush were "about the symbolic politics of it all, and riling up [the GOP] base," says Rebecca Sager, a Loyola Marymount University sociologist and author of "Faith, Politics, & Power: The Politics of Faith-Based Initiatives." "It was showing you supported religious groups ... and all these wonderful things were going to happen without ... the real financial support to make that happen."

Under Bush, the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives oversaw government-wide efforts to make it easier for religious groups – particularly small community-based groups – to compete for funding to deliver social services. In areas from feeding programs to treating drug addictions, rules were modified to help religious groups qualify for funding and maintain their religious character once funded.

Controversy swirled from the start. Activists for separation of church and state worried that government funds would be used for religious activities and protested a policy allowing faith-based groups to use religious considerations in hiring while receiving government funding.

Yet for all the hand-wringing and public debate, little changed in terms of how people receive social services. Organizations such as Catholic Charities, the Salvation Army, and Lutheran Social Services continue to receive substantial government funding, just as they have for decades.

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