Not the race card again, please

Posted: Mar 20, 2001 12:00 AM
President Bush's advisers were gritting their teeth last week about anti-evangelical statements made by John DiIulio, head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. This week, though, they need to come to grips with race-baiting statements evidently made by the Rev. Eugene Rivers, DiIulio's closest ally among urban black pastors. DiIulio criticized "predominantly white, ex-urban evangelical and national para-church leaders" whose views, he said, "would persuade more and rankle less if they were backed by real human and financial help." Southern Baptist leader Richard Land responded by noting the extensive charitable efforts of his denomination and criticizing DiIulio's "uninformed, offensive ... caricaturing and stereotyping" that "amounts to playing the race card." But the DiIulio remarks were diplomatic compared to those Rivers made last Friday, according to reporters including Mary Leonard, a careful Boston Globe writer. She quoted Rivers complaining that "The white fundamentalists thought the faith-based office would finance their sectarian programs, which primarily serve upper middle class suburbanites, and they are infuriated because John DiIulio wants resources to go to people who are poor, black and brown." Rivers deserves great credit for helping to turn around lives in inner-city Boston, but on this matter he is wrong. White fundamentalists are the least likely church folk in America to expect funding from federal programs, because they expect the Washington bureaucracy to be biased against them. Most are resigned to separate and unequal treatment. Some fundamentalist groups do serve upper middle class suburbanites, but while visiting their programs across the country over the past six years, I've seen that they serve deeply troubled poor people without concern for race or ethnicity. Not once, in the hundreds of discussions I've had with leaders and participants in these programs, have I seen anyone opposed to the idea of more resources going to inner-city black churches that are effectively fighting poverty. Up to now, the white evangelicals DiIulio complained about and the white fundamentalists that got Rivers' goat have largely been supportive of most of the faith-based initiatives. They have spoken in favor of the much-needed regulatory and tax-code reforms that make up two-thirds of the faith-based effort. They have also favored the Bush principle of a level playing field for faith-based and secular groups, and have criticized DiIulio largely because he is backing away from that principle. The DiIulio Doctrine is that faith-based groups can participate in federal programs if they segment their activities into "religious" and "non-religious" ones, but if they cannot make that distinction, they are ineligible. That would discriminate against many black and Hispanic groups as well as many white ones, and that appears to be a different policy than the one developed by the Bush campaign. The view then was that a religious program had to use private funds to pay for its teachers and instructional materials. The government, though, could help out with utility bills and other expenses of thoroughly religious programs that served a public purpose by effectively fighting poverty, alcoholism, drug addiction or other social ills. Ironically, under the DiIulio Doctrine, the program that in 1995 started George W. Bush down the path toward his faith-based initiative, Teen Challenge, would be told to get lost, because its entire program emphasizes religion. Clearly liberals would scream if a Teen Challenge were to receive funding, but the way to gain broad public and congressional support is not to embrace religious discrimination as DiIulio has done. Nor is it to set race against race, as his remarks and those of Rivers threaten to do. At this point, DiIulio can try to win ugly, or he can embrace tax credit and voucher proposals that would allow taxpayers and those in need to choose the groups that will benefit. Such proposals decrease the power of Washington officials to reward their friends, but Rivers and others with effective programs would still gain additional resources that way. Sure, it's easier for the well-connected to get a federal grant than to win votes of confidence from clients and taxpayers, but those of us who share the Bush goal of growing citizens, not spectators, seek to have less power in Washington, not more.