Faith-Based Challenges: Rhetorical or Real?

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Faith-Based Challenges: Rhetorical or Real?
A Report on the Pew Forum Evaluation of the First Year of the President’s Faith Based Initiative
By Janice Shaw Crouse, Ph.D.
February 21, 2002

Scholars from around the nation gathered on the first anniversary of the establishment of the President’s Office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives (OFBCI) to consider the loaded question, “Can an Office Change a Country?” The forum’s report provided a short answer to the question. The initiative “lacks a constituency committed to its success,” but the Administration’s politically savvy, “under-the-radar coup” to establish five cabinet-based centers to implement the initiative ensures “profound impact” on the nation by “rewriting hundreds of regulations” that will “shift the flow of federal funds to religious groups.”

Erudite and witty E.J. Dionne, Jr. (Senior Fellow, the Brookings Institution and Washington Post Columnist) began by discussing the importance of language in any discussion. He referred to a story the legendary Everett Dirkson told: a son of a criminal was filling out insurance papers about his father’s hanging. The forms required him to tell how and at what age his father died. The young man wrote that his dad died at age 65 when the platform on which he was standing fell beneath him at a public event.

Dionne’s story was a fitting introduction to the discussion; rhetoric was key to the hour-long discussion held at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and sponsored by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, Associate Director of the University of Pennsylvania‘s Washington Semester Program and guest scholar at the Brookings Institution, authored the Pew-commissioned report and answering the report’s title question was the focus of the forum. While rhetorical arguments dominated the discussion, the problems underlying the initiative were very real.

Clearly, many in the packed-out room were afraid that “a level playing field” for faith-based programs would profoundly alter the flow of federal grant money. Paul Light, Vice President and Director of the Governmental Studies Program at Brookings, advised the audience to “follow the money” because the “devil is in the details.” He said, “Five years from now, we’ll count all who work on faith-based initiatives as government employees” and predicted that the next Administration will eliminate the office. Throughout the forum, Greg Ivers, Professor and Chair of American University‘s Department of Government, kept repeating that the office should be called “religious” rather than “faith-based.” He, too, emphasized the necessity of following the money. Further, he questioned whether it was right for people who are uncomfortable with funding for profane art to recommend funding for religious causes. He declared that religious groups are now becoming interest groups and are demanding, not equal treatment, but favored treatment.

At the outset, Dr. Tenpas cited the following motives for President Bush to establish the OFBCI: keep a campaign promise, appease an important constituency, create a legacy, and nationalize a pet issue. And, oh yes, the president is “deeply devoted” to implementing faith-based initiatives. In her report, Tenpas used half of the report to describe present and future problems of the office. From the outset, she said, the OFBCI was hampered by problems that included shifting priorities, lack of autonomy and isolation in the White House and lack of coordination with Congress, inflated expectations, lack of constituency, unprecedented opposition from the left and the right, and leadership issues, PR flaps and the unforeseen events of 9/11.

Jim Towey, newly-appointed Director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, stressed the important place that the initiative holds in the President’s heart and expressed his determination to turn the debate back to the mission and purpose of the office-providing hope and help for those in need. Towey decried the repeated refrain of “funding of religious organizations.” The focus of funding, he said, must be on the people who are being served. The OFBCI focuses “not on the server, but on the served.” He concluded, “We have to keep asking who can do it [serving the poor and needy] best from the standpoint of the ones who need the services.” After all, he said, some of the faith-based institutions are going where no one else is willing to go and serving those whom no one else is willing to serve.

Tenpas summarized the report by predicting that the future of the initiative rests with the office’s ability to “carve out a new role in its second year of life.” The Pew forum made clear the challenges facing the office. It cannot remain in a purely “advisory” role, nor can it operate without a “natural” constituency. Further, Tenpas saw an even greater challenge within the faith-based groups-finding groups with the “organizational capacity” and staff of volunteers capable of handling government funds.

Audience member, Robert Andringa, President of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities, articulated a more central barrier to the success of the initiative-the moral constraint that many faith-based organizations have in being eager to serve all who have needs, but being unwilling to hire practicing homosexuals.

The Pew Forum made it abundantly clear that while the rhetorical challenges of bringing together disparate groups are daunting, the real challenges are the ideological and moral barriers that will make or break the President’s initiative.

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