As the House of Representatives prepares to vote on a key part of President Bush's faith-based initiative, White House politicos and faith czar John DiIulio have reneged on a key pledge made to conservatives in April.
The Associated Press and World magazine both reported the pledge. AP wrote on April 26, "Under pressure from conservatives, a White House official said Thursday that even the most religious programs should be allowed to compete for all types of government funds. That includes direct grants as well as vouchers used by participants to pick a program, said John DiIulio, director of the White House Office on Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. 'It can't be only one or the other,' he said in an interview."
Until April, DiIulio had been maintaining that faith-based groups applying for governmental grants would have to segment their "religious" activities from their "non-religious" ones, or else "opt out" of the grants program. But many organizations cannot do such segmenting either in principle (they believe their religion informs everything they say and do) or in practice (since they try to teach biblical principles throughout the day).
So, as AP reported, DiIulio switched -- and when he did so, conservatives muted their critique of him. Now, though, the April agreement is off and DiIulio's earlier position is back in force. H.R. 7, the bill to be voted on by the House perhaps within the week, will say that programs including "worship, instruction or proselytization" are ineligible for federal grants.
If such an agreement were to become law, evangelical groups such as Teen Challenge and Prison Fellowship would have to change their programs radically in order to receive government grants. Ironically, it was Teen Challenge's battle with a Texas regulatory agency in 1995 that first led then-Gov. Bush to embrace a compassionate conservative agenda. He pledged in 1999, "We will never ask an organization to compromise its core values and spiritual mission to get the help it needs."
White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card worked out the new agreement in a late June meeting with House leaders. The deal, if it becomes law, may make the world safer for theological liberals, but it tells theological conservatives, "Get lost." That the White House would feel driven to such a surrender shows the failure of DiIulio's strategy of winning Democratic support for the faith-based initiative.
Instead of getting grass-roots faith-based groups excited about the initiative so they would push their legislators to support it, the administration's proposals have been so watered down that one evangelical poverty-fighter dismissed them with a curt, "They cut us out." Meanwhile, the inside-the-Beltway strategy failed in its attempt to placate liberals, who intensified their assault when DiIulio seemed eager to appease them.
What can be salvaged at this point from an initiative that so far has been badly mishandled? The Bush administration can do much good by removing through executive order some of the regulatory barriers that religious poverty-fighters face. Congress may still support income-tax deductions for non-itemizers. A section in H.R. 7 allowing social service voucher programs to operate without onerous religious restraints could be made more than window-dressing. A small hope for poverty-fighting tax credits still remains.
What's needed above all is for Bush to make the case for compassionate conservatism by showing America what groups like Teen Challenge do, and why it's unfair and unwise to discriminate against them. During last year's presidential campaign, he visited faith-based groups around the country, and he visited another one in Philadelphia on July 4.
He should spend the next year educating the American public by visiting pervasively religious anti-poverty efforts and throwing a spotlight on the heroism that animates the best of them. That way, more people will demand legislation that does not bite the hands of those who offer spiritual, as well as material, food.