Wednesday, September 29, 2004

HAVE FAITH BUT VERIFY: Somewhat related to the last post: The faith-based initiative has never been one of my major complaints with the Bush Administration. For one thing, frankly, detailed discussions of welfare or housing or public health policy don’t always rivet my attention. For another thing, my children have gone to church-affiliated day care centers, with which all in all we’ve been very satisfied. No heavy proselytizing; they just provide a much-needed service in an effective way. These centers have been in business for over 25 years, so I know that faith-based social services are not an entirely new thing, nor an inherently scary thing. So I haven't been an absolutist about the separation of church and state. As long as the state doesn’t anoint one faith as the official one, I figure some cooperation is okay.

However, I got to attend a conference last week which looked at this issue from the point of view of congregations themselves, and congregations are something I get paid to be interested in. One of the invited guests was this guy, an expert on faith-based policies. He gave just a brief synopsis of his work, but it was very enlightening. Far from being a recent innovation or a spontaneous movement of the spirit, faith-based social programs are the result of years of groundwork by conservative philanthropic groups who wanted to get government to do their bidding. And it’s worked; more and more, government spouts the conservative narrative of cultural devolution and moral rot. (Think William Bennett.) Faith-based initiatives are a really handy talking point for the Republicans to rally their white conservative base, and they help chip off some votes in the black and Latino communities (which are more socially conservative than some white Democrats realize).

For congregations and other religious agencies, the faith-based initiative has been something of a Faustian bargain. It’s NOT a great bonanza of new funding sources, it’s mostly a confusing mess of new paperwork and procedures. There’s an unfortunate temptation for a church to twist itself out of shape, sell out its vision and priorities, in order to get a piece of a block grant. And conservative Christian groups have the inside track anyway over liberal churches or especially non-Christian groups. Not one dollar of faith-based grant money has gone to any faith other than Christian.

In other words: yet another Bush administration policy turns out to be motivated by political considerations. Its practical impact is negligible or even harmful.

And here comes Amy Sullivan with an examination of faith-based social policies, that pretty much confirms Bob Wineburg’s view, and adds a twist: Bush travels around he country boasting that his faith-based initiative pumps $1 billion a year into church coffers. What he doesn’t say is that a tax benefit he had promised (extending the deduction for charitable giving), he ended up welshing on. That, combined with the repeal of the estate tax, which used to motivate people to bequeath money to charity, costs faith-based nonprofits $80 billion a year.

It really isn’t so much the case that religion infects politics in America, but the opposite: politics uses religion (like it uses patriotism) in cynical ways. The church-state wall, remember, was put there in the first place to protect the church. The wall needs to stay there to protect both religion AND government from doing mischief to each other.

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