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 , Correspondent

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    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.
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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.

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.

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"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.

If faith-based contracting ever caught momentum, it didn't last long. Between 2003 and 2006, the number of grants awarded to faith-based organizations by five main cabinet agencies increased by 41 percent, according to a White House progress report cited by Mr. Daly. But by 2007 the overall total of congregations that were providing social services and receiving government funding was no larger than in 1998, according to a Duke University analysis of National Congregations Survey data. Most religious organizations – especially neighborhood churches who were supposed to be among those most encouraged by faith-based initiatives – have realized they lack the necessary capacity, or in some cases, the interest, to apply for grants and meet government standards.

"For a time [under Bush], it was like begging faith-based entities: 'Please, apply for money; please take it,' " says Robert Fischer, codirector of the Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. "But they're already able to do a certain level of service. The headache that would come with taking the federal money would not be worth it [to them]. I've heard that very frequently from those doing community-based ministries."

If anything, the social service arena is murkier today than when Bush first took office. Now the lines are blurred, according to Ms. Sager: Religious organizations no longer need to create a separate nonprofit organization to receive government funding for social service work.

Controversy around faith-based initiatives has dissipated under President Obama, even though some controversial policies remain in place. The lightning rod policy allowing for religious hiring decisions endures.

"The issue of hiring is a difficult one," says Joshua DuBois, director of Mr. Obama's Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. "We continue to examine that issue."

To execute Bush's faith-based vision, his administration engineered only a handful of actual programs, including MCP. The most notable was PEPFAR – the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief – a $15 billion AIDS relief program in Africa. Still running, it uses church groups, among others, to treat AIDS and provide for children, and has made Bush a hero in sub-Saharan Africa. The Compassion Capital Fund also endures for teaching local faith-based groups and others how to meet federal funding requirements.

More central to the effort than programs were offices, spanning 10 federal agencies and operating in more than 30 states, created to help religious providers of social services get a slice of the public grant-making pie. Many of these still exist; Obama has similar offices in 12 agencies. But, says David Wright, former project director of SUNY Albany's Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy, "the Obama administration is thinking much more about nonfinancial areas of partnership."

Example: Mr. DuBois's office encourages corporations and faith-based groups to spearhead mentoring programs for at-risk youths, but provides no funding.

In emphasizing specific goals, Obama has broken with the Bush approach, says Daly. Policy priorities cover economic recovery, maternal and child health (including reducing unwanted pregnancies), responsible fatherhood, and interfaith cooperation.

Obama is still eager to work with faith-based groups on unmet needs, says DuBois. For instance, in 2011, the US Department of Agriculture funded 1,465 new religious sites to serve food during the summer to kids who qualify for subsidized lunches.

"President Obama said, 'How about we focus on how we can help people who are facing specific challenges [and] bring in any faith-based organizations that want to help solve those challenges?' " says DuBois.

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