Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Faith-Based Double Standards

"Faith-Based Double Standards" by MOLLIE ZIEGLER HEMINGWAY at the Wall Street Journal

In 2001, President Bush issued his first executive order as president. He created a program to encourage religious organizations to receive taxpayer funds to perform social services. The Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, as it was called, infuriated many. Civil libertarians said it violated the separation of church and state, liberals suggested that the office was paying off political supporters, and even Christian conservatives worried about the tentacles of government regulation.

The Village Voice fretted over Mr. Bush's "plan to let churches run the government's welfare system" and his "march toward turning the U.S. into a religious state." Former Clinton adviser Sidney Blumenthal wrote an article on Salon.com about the faith-based efforts with the subtitle: "By pandering to Christian zealots, Bush has come close to establishing a national religious party."

Now that Mr. Bush is gone, however, no one seems particularly worried about the entanglement of the federal government with religious organizations. A recent study sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that President Obama's "faith-based initiative has so far generated little of the contentious press coverage associated with Bush's effort."

According to Pew, the media ran nearly seven times as much coverage of President Bush's faith-based initiative during his first six months in office as President Obama's. And the stories on Mr. Bush's initiative were almost 50% more likely to be on the front-page, emphasizing the controversial nature of the program. The stories on Mr. Obama's initiative were buried deeper in the paper and focused on procedure. Few, if any, stories questioned whether the current president would use his office to advance a religious agenda, a major theme of coverage during the Bush ­administration.

This scant media attention is all the more incredible given that, as Americans United for Separation of Church and State has noted, Mr. Obama has left "the entire architecture of the Bush Faith-Based Initiative intact—every rule, every regulation, every executive order." More controversially, the office has become a major hub of political outreach. In frequent conference calls, the administration informs faith-based leaders of its policy initiatives, as when it recently asked rabbis around the country to give sermons on health-care reform during the coming high holiday season. Representatives from politically important religious groups have been appointed to a 25-member religious advisory council. The office was also involved in drafting President Obama's June speech delivered from Cairo calling for alliances with ­Muslims.

Even The Nation magazine complains that Mr. Obama's faith-based office "is plagued by a lack of transparency and accountability and has seemingly already been exploited as a tool for rewarding religious constituencies with government jobs."

The political-outreach emphasis of Mr. Obama's office is particularly well-suited to the Rev. Josh Dubois, the 27-year-old campaign operative and Pentecostal minister who heads the show. Mara Vanderslice, who pioneered faith outreach for the Democrats following their 2004 losses and later launched a pro-Obama political action committee, runs the advisory council. By contrast, two of Mr. Bush's appointments to head the office, John DiIulio and Jay Hein, were steeped in social-science research and public policy, while another, Jim Towey, had worked as a lawyer for Mother Teresa.

There is some confusion about the purpose of the faith-based office. It does not distribute federal funds. Instead, the office works with the White House Office of Management and Budget to set goals and "best practices" for each federal agency that distributes grant money.

The legacy of Mr. Bush's effort was to "level the playing field" for religious groups. The Bush administration rewrote 16 federal rules to help faith-based organizations compete for federal grants, set aside $300 million to help small organizations apply for grants, trained more than 100,000 personnel at nonprofits about working with the federal government, and encouraged 36 states and more than 100 cities to create faith-based offices.

When President Obama campaigned for office, he promised a new name signifying a new mission. His Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships office would allegedly differ because it would train larger faith-based groups to mentor smaller religious groups and it would work with state and local governments. But "Taking Stock: The Bush Faith-Based Initiative and What Lies Ahead," a June report from the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute, said that neither aim was new as "both were significant elements in the Bush administration's ­program."

If the claimed mission and structure of the office are the same, the pivotal difference between the two presidents' approaches was supposed to be hiring policy. President Bush advocated exempting religious organizations that accept taxpayer funding from regulations forbidding religious discrimination in hiring. President Obama said he would overturn that policy.

"If you get a federal grant, you can't use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help, and you can't discriminate against them—or against the people you hire—on the basis of their religion," he said on the stump. But when he rolled out his office in February, he tabled that issue, sending it to the Justice Department for review. The Bush administration also asked Justice to handle the issue.

Barry Lynn, head of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, was a vocal critic of Mr. Bush's faith-based office. Now, under Mr. Obama, he serves on the advisory council's task force to improve the functioning of the office. Explaining his turnaround, he said he doesn't view Mr. Obama's office as partisan—the way Mr. Bush's was. But acknowledging that there was no substantive difference between the offices yet, Mr. Lynn said: "We have a guarded optimism that when the advisory council, Justice and the White House act and get down to the nitty gritty, they will make this a constitutionally protected program. However, we have no proof of that and no guarantee."

Now that is the audacity of hope.

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