- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 20, 2008



Lost in the sideshow over the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s ungodly digs about Sen. Barack Obama’s anatomy is the more substantive issue of government-funded faith-based initiatives.

Unproductive arguments about Mr. Jackson’s envy or irrelevance could persist for days while a growing number of indigent and incapacitated Americans seek relief from an increasingly cash-strapped, overburdened social services network that includes countless houses of worship.

Donald W. Mathis, president and CEO of Community Action Partnership, which represents 1,000 social-services providers nationwide, recalls his early days as a social worker helping to operate a Head Start preschool program out of a Catholic church basement.

The faith-based initiative has the potential for a significant effect on the presidential election, particularly among younger faith voters, he suggests. They are more interested in poverty, AIDS and addiction than certain conservative wedge issues, such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

However, Mr. Mathis said the focus on the faith-based initiative, in terms of its political implications and the church-versus-state contentions, misses the point about those folks in need.

“There are a lot of people hurting … and we can’t waste one person,” says Mr. Mathis. If churches can present track records proving their ability to provide social services, “then so be it,” he says.

Not so fast, contend critics like the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Churches should realize that they need “to use voluntary sources of money, not government funds to go out and do missions in their community that they think are important,” Mr. Lynn said in a televised interview.

In voicing their concerns about religious groups using government funds to promote their beliefs and activities, some point to the issue of fairness in what Mr. Mathis describes as the “cutthroat business” of securing grants.

Christianity Today reported that the “White House estimates that faith-based and community organizations have received $7.5 billion in government grants since 2003, while secular nonprofits have received $25 billion.”

If taxpayer dollars fund nongovernmental agencies providing health care, day care, job training, shelter and food, why bar religious organizations from competing for those same charitable dollars to offer similar programs?

They should not be barred, says Mr. Obama, following the precedent of President Bush.

The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee took a page right out of the Bush political playbook when he announced earlier this month that he intends not only to extend the controversial program, but expand it, albeit with restrictions and safeguards, if he is elected.

Publicly professing his love of Christ in Ohio, a blue-collar state he lost in the primaries, Mr. Obama said his Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships would be the “moral central” for his administration because the nation’s social problems are too big for government to solve.

He would allocate $500 million a year to fund a summer learning program for 1 million children. How? By cutting wasteful government spending.

Sound familiar? Yet Mr. Obama continues to warn that victory for his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, would constitute a continuation of the Bush administration.

Since its inception in 2001, the Bush faith-based initiative has been a political lightning rod. Some contend that the government funding of church charities is pure political pandering to evangelical voters and the religious right.

Mr. Obama incited the same criticism.

Pundits rushed to characterize Mr. Obama’s motive in expanding Mr. Bush’s pet program as playing to white evangelicals in Bible Belt areas he will need to win this fall.

But he is well aware that his black, faith-based constituency also covets government dollars for services that some, like Mr. Jackson, feel were not awarded as promised.

Could this be why he included a non-starter in his proposal that stresses the need for larger traditional charitable groups, like the Salvation Army and Catholic Charities, to train small congregations in how to access the competitive funding pot?

The Rev. Walter E. Fauntroy, of the New Bethel Baptist Church in Northwest Washington, angered some in the black community when he stood by Mr. Bush as he signed the faith-based legislation at the White House.

Mr. Fauntroy says he had high hopes for the initiative because churches, particularly in black communities, already were trying to provide social services but needed additional resources to meet the growing need. Part of his disillusionment came, however, when “the people who were let in were selective and were evangelical,” he says.

(David Kuo, former deputy director of the White House’s office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, wrote “Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction,” in which he reports that his bosses, including strategist Karl Rove, used the faith-based initiatives to energize the religious right and help Republican candidates in states with tight races.)

“I know the role of government, and I know the role of the church, in meeting the needs of the people,” said Mr. Fauntroy, who is the former Democratic D.C. congressional delegate who ran for vice president in 1972 with Shirley Chisholm.

Having served on numerous congressional committees, Mr. Fauntroy says government must contract out some services. Funding faith-based initiatives is no different than the government contracting with Halliburton to provide military services, he says.

Speaking on MSNBC’s “Countdown,” Mr. Lynn characterized Mr. Bush’s faith-based initiative as “nothing more than walking-around money luring friends.”

Conservative critics also have been wary of the faith-based initiative, with their opposition stemming from the fear they must comply with federal employment regulations and be prohibited from proselytizing.

“With government shekels comes government shackles,” Richard D. Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, warned on Fox News.

Mr. Land said Mr. Obama “senses that a lot of people of faith are uncomfortable with McCain, and he senses that McCain’s people are uncomfortable with people of faith, and he senses an opening and is reaching out to it.”

However, Mr. Land suggested that “if [Mr. Obama] wasn’t so radically pro-abortion, he would have huge success” with evangelicals and the religious right.



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