Bad Faith

John DiIulio, head of the White House Office of Faith-Based
Initiatives, resigned his post late last week. Critics have charged
that the departure comes after the Bush Administration focused its
faith-based efforts too narrowly on evangelical Christian churches,
while leaving black churches -- whose programs DiIulio has strongly
endorsed -- out in the cold. Reverend Eugene Rivers, a prominent
black
minister who had previously endorsed Bush's faith based initiative,
lashed out at the Bush Administration, charging, "The message in
Professor DiIulio's departure is that the black and the poor in the
inner cities can go to hell. It sends a signal that the faith-based
office will just be a financial watering hole for the right-wing white
evangelists."


This American Prospect article ("Bad Faith," July 30,
2001) proves Rivers is not the only leader to charge the Bush
Administration with making empty promises to black churches.


Bishop Harold Ray is hopping mad. "There is open conflict
between what's being said and what's being done," he fumes. Ray, an African
American, is talking about President Bush's program to give churches tax dollars
to run social services--specifically, the fact that Bush has just rescinded a
campaign pledge that would have increased charitable giving by some $15 billion
(much of it to religious organizations like the Redemptive Life Fellowship that
Ray runs in West Palm Beach) by allowing a charitable deduction for taxpayers who
don't itemize their deductions. The move comes on the heels of another broken
promise: In January, Bush pledged to create a $700-million "federal Compassion
Capital Fund" to help launch "faith-based" programs in the inner city. This fund,
he said, would help churches pursue their "focused and noble mission" of stamping
out teen pregnancy, drug addiction, illiteracy, and homelessness. Yet somehow
that noble mission fell by the wayside when Bush drew up his budget: It included
not a cent for the Compassion Capital Fund.


It may not be surprising to learn that Harold Ray, as a black clergyman, is
upset over the president's actions. Only Ray isn't your typical black minister.
Two weeks before this outburst, he points out, The Wall Street Journal
described him as "the president's strongest ally in the faith-based effort." That
the president's strongest ally is suddenly disillusioned with the faith-based
plan is a good indication of just how dismal its prospects are and just how broad
the disaffection is among black clergy. For Bush, who publicly courted black
ministers, it is a stinging rebuke. But it shouldn't be a surprising one. Since
the high-profile rollout of his plan in January, many black ministers have
quietly come to believe that Bush has abandoned them. And with his faith-based
program in jeopardy of dying in Congress, they in turn are now poised to abandon
him.


From its inception, Bush's faith-based program met with greater
opposition than the administration had expected. Liberals have opposed the
privatization of social services and the threat to the church-state divide.
Conservatives were concerned about expanding government's reach into religion and
feared that churches would become dependent on federal handouts. In February,
Bush was dealt his greatest blow when Pat Robertson, head of the Christian
Coalition, publicly opposed the plan. Despite these setbacks, Bush did appear to
win over one important constituency: black ministers. This was no small feat
given the dismal support he received from black voters in the presidential
election.


Bush had begun making overtures toward the black clergy well before he took
office. In December he hosted a meeting of religious leaders at the First Baptist
Church in Austin, Texas, to sketch out his faith-based plan. Although Jewish,
Catholic, and Islamic leaders were in attendance, the largest group represented
was African-American clergy, whose presence sent an unmistakable message. Those
participating included Harold Ray and leaders of black mega-churches like the
Reverend Floyd Flake, the Reverend Kirbyjon Caldwell, and Bishop Charles Blake,
as well as the Reverend Eugene Rivers, a onetime Gore supporter who quickly
became one of Bush's most vociferous backers. The meeting produced the desired
effect. Bush acknowledged that he had "a lot of work to do" with black ministers.
In return he drew glowing headlines that highlighted his desire to reach out to
black religious leaders.


But such coverage vastly overstated the facts. Despite the headlines, Bush
excluded officials from the Congress of National Black Churches, which represents
the eight major African-American denominations and includes 65,000 churches and
20 million members. Instead he handpicked a few politically sympathetic black
ministers and featured them prominently in his public campaign. This distinction
was largely missed, to the outrage of mainstream black ministers. "In terms of
how many folks the ministers in attendance represented, it's the comparison
between tens of thousands versus tens of millions," says Dr. Robert Franklin,
president of the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta. It was left
to Bishop John Hurst Adams, founder of the church congress, to write a letter to
The Washington Post pointing out that "to have a 'national' meeting and not
to include such representation is an affront to the black church, its leadership
and all African Americans."


Bush continued to talk up his faith-based plan, most visibly in a nationally
televised address to the U.S. Congress on February 27, and he continued to stress
its appeal to urban ministries. The initiative still had critics on both the left
and the right, but Bush began to make headway with mainstream black clergy. As
presented, his plan pitched programs tailored to inner-city churches. One that
particularly resonated with black ministers was an initiative geared toward
children of incarcerated parents. Such specificity impressed members of the black
clergy because it showed that Bush (or his handlers) grasped the type of problems
their churches regularly faced. "It's significant that he chose that program,
because it's a tough-to-reach, hard-to-serve population," says Franklin. "Not
many average congregations have programs for that population."


Bush's $700-million Compassion Capital Fund and his promise to allow
non-itemizers to deduct charitable contributions began to engage some
African-American church leaders. Blacks give more per capita to their churches
than whites; and because they are poorer on average than whites, most African
Americans currently take the standard deduction. Allowing a tax break on top of
that for charitable contributions would benefit blacks--and black churches.


"It was a growing point of excitement," Franklin allows. To conservatives like
Ray, it was "new money for new social programs" that churches--which heretofore
had to compete with public-sector organizations for government funding--would
receive simply for running worthy programs. And for Democratic ministers who had
gone out on a limb and supported Bush's plan early on, it was confirmation that
they had correctly discerned the president's good intentions. "When first touted
and talked about, it appeared as though there'd be a large sum of money that was
going to be directed to faith-based groups that were successful at doing things
the public sector had not," says the Reverend Willie Gable, pastor of the
Progressive Baptist Church in New Orleans. On March 19 Bush further bolstered
this growing goodwill by finally summoning leaders of the Congress of National
Black Churches to the White House for a meeting. It was, says Franklin, "a second
opportunity to make a first impression."


But Bush didn't fare much better the second time around. Many clergy
who attended were put off by the meeting's lack of depth and the public-relations
blitz that followed. "It was a relationship-building meeting and that's all it
was," complains another attendee, who was angered by the second round of
Bush-courts-black-ministers headlines that popped up the next day. "What can you
accomplish in a 40-minute meeting?" Furthermore, Bush declined to address what
for many black clergy was the most troubling aspect of his proposal. Title VII,
the provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that generally bans discrimination
in employment, allows bona fide religious organizations to give preference to
members of their own denomination in hiring. "There remains great confusion in
the minds of many black church leaders over whether this provision would permit
churches to discriminate," says Sullivan Robinson, executive director of the
Congress of National Black Churches. "It's particularly troubling to those who
were active in the civil rights struggle. It's a short step from discriminating
by religion to discriminating by race." Adds another attendee: "The fear is that
the [Title VII] exception will erase everything that anybody who ever fought for
civil rights won." Nevertheless, Bush raised hopes among many black ministers,
who saw the belated meeting as a sign that he now understood the importance of
inclusiveness. "They may have gone in with a different intention," Robinson
muses, "but they found they really needed some institutional backing."


Ministers were particularly disappointed, however, when the next Republican
faith-based gathering, a workshop in late April run by Bishop Ray and Oklahoma
Representative J.C. Watts, Jr., turned out to be little more than a political
rally. "There again, they were back to the December-style of handpicking those
already sympathetic to the president's and the Republican leadership's vision of
a faith-based initiative," says one participant, who came expecting to receive
skills training. "It was a rather galling and premature request for a
rubber-stamp endorsement." What's more, it was scheduled on the same day as a
board meeting of the Congress of National Black Churches. Meanwhile, black
ministers encouraged by the initial White House meeting were growing increasingly
frustrated that no follow-up dialogue had ensued.


Then, in late May, the Bush administration dropped its bomb: It abandoned the
charitable-giving deduction in favor of greater income-tax reductions that were
part of the president's general tax package. This was soon followed by the
elimination of the Compassion Capital Fund. The move dealt a blow to all
supporters of faith-based organizations, but particularly to staunch advocates
like Ray, who was not notified ahead of time. Like other Bush boosters, Ray says
he was led to believe that the new administration would direct new money to
religious organizations in exchange for their providing stepped-up social
services. He now faces an unpleasant reality. "The problem is that a lot of the
president's initiative was clearly going to be tied to the $14 billion or $15
billion the charitable deduction would have raised," says Ray. "That was the 'new
money.' I'd like to know how many government programs are being passed along
without the money that was promised to accompany them."


Others aren't waiting for an answer. "It's already dead," says the Reverend
Calvin Pressley, executive director of the United Methodist City Society in New
York City, who has worked with government-funded faith-based programs since the
1960s and supports the concept. "In the abstract, it sounds wonderful--Mom, apple
pie, and faith-based initiatives for churches." But what keeps Pressley from
supporting Bush's plan is the sense that it's merely an attempt by Republicans to
realign the black vote, a conviction that's reinforced by Bush's lofty promises
coupled with his failure to provide funding. "Can churches do better than the
government with less money? No, they cannot. Can they do better with the same
money? Absolutely. But one thing conspicuously absent has been any new money and
new programs." This is a common refrain from ministers across the political
spectrum from ministers, many of whom predict that Bush's bait-and-switch tactics
with the black clergy will cost him dearly.


Bush's failure to galvanize African-American support is all the more
dramatic because he inherited a general sympathy in the black church toward the
broad outlines of his plan. Though initially skeptical of the charitable-choice
clause of the 1996 welfare-reform legislation upon which Bush's faith-based
program is modeled, many black ministers were surprised by the positive
experience they encountered, especially with the Department of Housing and Urban
Development. "There was a slowly evolving perception by many African-American
clergy that the federal government was interested in changing the culture of
hostility toward working with the faith-based organizations," Franklin says.
"There had been a developing relationship and, I think, a high degree of trust on
the part of black clergy in President Clinton's and Al Gore's stewardship of the
program." What's more, black churches were a natural target of support for Bush's
plan: Around 70 percent offer some type of social-outreach program. They were
also amenable to the kind of accountability measures that Bush often advocates
but didn't include in his faith-based proposal. In my interviews with more than a
dozen black ministers and philanthropic-organization leaders, the one common
theme expressed--in addition to outrage over funding cuts--was the desire to
bring business management and accounting discipline to faith-based organizations,
which frequently lack such expertise.


On June 27, Bush once again summoned religious leaders to the White House,
in a desperate bid to prop up flagging support for legislation he'd originally
hoped the House of Representatives would pass that very day. But this president
miscalculated badly by promising the moon to a largely hostile
constituency--black churchgoers--and then provoking their anger by breaking his
promises. Earlier in June, still angling for black support, Bush had declared
that of all the programs he planned to introduce, his faith-based initiative is
"the one that more than anything else will, I believe, distinguish my
presidency." At least among black voters, there's a strong suspicion that he's
exactly right.

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