These days, a Democratic president who proposes $8 billion in new federal spending on after-school programs, drug treatment, prisoner rehabilitation, and welfare-to-work initiatives is likely to be laughed out of Washington. After all, there are only two kinds of politicians who propose that kind of thing anymore: loony, unreconstructed, quasi-socialist left-liberals -- and Republicans.
So no one thought it remarkable when, last week, George W. Bush proposed just such new spending under the aegis of a brand new federal bureaucracy, the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. In fact, the new office is being pitched as a chance to transcend a traditional partisan debate: the one between liberal secularists who like the idea of spending more on social services but fear federally-supported proselytizing, and social conservatives who like the idea of providing social services but fear federal imperialism.
In Bush's formulation, the rationale for what proponents call "charitable choice" is simple. Faith-based social services run by religious organizations, many argue, are more effective than secular social services. They are more effective precisely because they merge good work with Good Works, enlisting the religious impulse of donors, volunteers, and the needy to stimulate charitable giving, volunteerism, and self-improvement. But in order to compete for federal funds under current law, religious organizations, such as the Catholic Church, must spin off secular social-service agencies -- like Catholic Charities, Inc.-- which are subject to federal discrimination, licensing, and workplace laws. For faith-based services -- many of which make religion a central component of their services, and thus serve and employ only congregants -- this would amount to forced de-churcification and the elimination of the very thing makes them so effective. If we could just cut through all the red tape and allow faith-based services access to public money without strings, the argument goes, we could unleash "armies of compassion" on America's tired and poor. (America's tired and poor are presumed to be receptive to this assault.) The Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, headed by criminologist John DiIulio, will do just that, coordinating federal agencies to give faith-based services a crack at the roughly $150 to $200 billion the government spends on social services each year. (The $8 billion figure represents new proposed spending and expanded tax deductions.)
But there's just one problem: There has never been a single, large-scale, independent study in this country showing that faith-based services are more effective than secular services. (To be fair, serious proponents of charitable choice acknowledge as much.) And the essence of "charitable choice" is to exempt faith-based services from precisely the kinds of oversight that might tell us whether, in fact, they are more effective than secular services. You can't have it both ways. So why doesn't Bush -- whose education agenda, for example, explicitly links school funding to school performance -- care about accountability for social services?
Most answers to this question focus -- not unreasonably -- on how Bush's plan will actually affect social service provision in the United States. Even if faith-based services aren't much more effective, some supporters will argue, it's unfair not to let churches, synagogues, and mosques (mention of all three in quick succession is obligatory in this debate) participate simply because they are religious institutions. Critics, on the other hand, argue that charitable choice is merely a scheme for Republicans to devolve, de-fund, and ultimately abandon state-run social-service programs -- a Bushie variant on Ronald Reagan's boost-the-deficit-to-scrunch-discretionary-social-spending strategy.
But another way to look at Bush's plan is how it will affect the Republican Party itself. Conservatives, after all, used to apply a different label to billions of dollars in no-strings-attached federal grants: Pork. So, following Deep Throat's Dictum, let's follow the money. Who gets the pork?
In Texas, the programs Bush championed -- such as Teen Challenge, which tries to cure drug addiction via religious conversion, and InnerChange, which tries to reduce recidivism among prison inmates via intensive Bible study -- weren't just nondenominational religious programs. They were primarily Christian, evangelical programs. (And it's worth noting that when Bush passed charitable-choice exemptions in Texas in 1997, most of the churches already operating secular social-service agencies opted to remain under state supervision.) Indeed, the new agency was originally going to be called, simply the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives; Carl Esbeck, an advisor to John Ashcroft who authored the "charitable choice" provisions of 1996's welfare reform bill, was an early candidate to lead it. Partly to allay fears that religious conservatives would dominate the office, the Bush Administration added "Community" to the office's title and tapped DiIulio -- a self-described "New Democrat" and a protégé of former Indianapolis mayor Stephen Goldsmith -- to run it.
But evangelical churches still stand to gain the most from "charitable choice." Philosophically predisposed to decentralization and deeply skeptical of entangling federal money, evangelical churches today generally lack both national bureaucracies and the stand-alone social service agencies that go with them. "Charitable choice" allows them to get into the social-service business on their own terms. And there's a reason why Bush might prefer to send social service money coursing through a nationwide network of Southern Baptist churches rather than, say, a nationwide network of federal drug treatment centers: Southern Baptist churches are, in a sense, the union locals of the Republican Party.
But pork doesn't just reward one's existing constituents. It also helps buy new ones. Thus it is no coincidence that African-American leaders like the Reverend Eugene Rivers and former congressman Reverend Floyd Flake are lining up behind charitable choice. Both are apostles for African-American self-sufficiency, and both combine credibility among black voters with a cultivated political ecumenism. Rivers has bootstrapped his way into the talk show circuit largely through his willingness to go on TV and criticize what he calls the "authorized leadership" of the black community; Flake has cultivated New York's Republican politicians to bring millions of dollars in public funds to a sprawling array of housing, food, and welfare programs operated out of his Queens-based church.
For Bush, who earned fewer black votes than either his father or noted Afrocentrist Bob Dole, "charitable choice" is aimed squarely at that section of the black electorate who vote Democratic and yet, by some measures (such as support for school vouchers) might be receptive to Republicans. Through the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, Bush can claim credit for funneling vast amounts of pork to the likes of Flake and Rivers -- and their respective flocks. Republicans, of course, used to complain endlessly when Democrats tried to reward their African-American constituents with this kind of unaccountable welfare state spending. But that was before Bush decided he wanted some African-American constituents of his own.