Faith-based programs beneath media radar

Posted: Oct 02, 2003 12:00 AM

Early in 2001, reporters were all over President Bush's faith-based initiative, which many saw as a conspiracy to move big bucks from secular to Christian groups. Last week, the Bush administration, thwarted in Congress, accelerated the regulatory revamping that will allow more religious groups to compete for government grants -- and most media outlets hardly noticed.

The amount of money involved is potentially huge. The Department of Health and Human Services finalized regulations giving faith-based organizations access to nearly $20 billion in HHS grants related to welfare, substance abuse, mental health and community services. New regulations within the Department of Housing and Urban Development will make faith-based groups eligible to compete for $8 billion in HUD grants.

The danger that faith-based applicants will have to leave their faith behind is still present, but Team Bush seems to have taken into account some of the concerns voiced by evangelical organizations. The administration specified that rescue missions "will be able to apply for HUD funds while maintaining their religious identity." A group will no longer have to form a secular nonprofit arm to receive HUD money to build or repair a building for social service.

The Department of Labor stated that those who receive job training vouchers will be able to use them not only at barber schools and truck driving academies, but at institutions that prepare them for employment at church or other religious organizations. The Department of Justice said that its programs for giving forfeited assets to community organizations will not discriminate against religious groups.

So why aren't these initiatives receiving more media criticism? One reason is that the executive orders President Bush is using don't have the drama of congressional debate. Besides, press wolfpacks are now howling about Iraq and other foreign policy cruxes, with domestic issues seeming like Tupperware parties in comparison.

A second reason is superior public relations. Early in 2001, John DiIulio, former head of the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, attacked evangelicals. The resulting food fight received press attention. DiIulio successor Jim Towey sticks close to the compassionate conservatism script: create a level playing field, treat all equally, do not discriminate against or in favor of those with religious faith.

A third reason is that it still remains to be seen whether organizations will be able not only to retain their religious identity but to express that religious identity in every aspect of their programs. University atheists don't mind Christian professors who go to church on Sunday but minimize the importance of the Bible during the rest of the week. Similarly, social service secularists can live with Christian organizations that maintain a religious identity but marginalize it.

Still, it was good to see Cabinet secretaries such as Mel Martinez of HUD stressing at a Sept. 22 press briefing that "in the past we have seen not only a negative feeling, but outright hostility to organizations of faith. (Now) they'll be able to compete fairly." It was also good to see Towey defending the rights of Jewish groups to hire Jews or Christian groups to hire Christians by telling reporters, in essence, to look around them: all groups hire people who share their goals, so religious groups should not be hit if they "hire people that share their vision and mission."

The danger in all this, of course, is that the federal grants system still centralizes power in Washington. Tax credits and vouchers that decentralize funding by empowering direct givers and receivers of aid would be an enormous improvement, but Republicans are not immune to the pleasures of speaking softly while carrying a big pork barrel.

It would be ironic if the triumph of one version of compassionate conservatism were to create additional support for the century-old liberal project of building and now maintaining Washington clout in social services -- but politics is full of irony.