President Bush pitched Social Security reform, his priority issue going into his second term, to a group of black pastors convened at the White House this past week. The pastors, in turn, praised the president for a major program of his first term _ the faith-based initiative.
For sure, the president is sending a mixed message to the black community regarding his idea of the role of government in our society. With Social Security, he's talking about ownership and less government. The faith-based-grant program, on the other hand, amounts to a significant expansion of government.
The faith-based initiative was born of good intentions. The most successful social service programs in the country are those affiliated with religious institutions. These are programs that provide services such as counseling, child care, drug rehabilitation and the like. Why shouldn't such programs be eligible to compete for federal funds when the same funds pour into government-sponsored, and far less successful, secular programs?
Attempts to enact faith-based legislation in the last Congress faltered, and the administration, by executive order, set up offices to administer grants through federal agencies.
In 2003, $1.17 billion in federal grants were made to faith-based institutions.
The Bush administration has used the faith-based initiative as a selling point in the heavily Democratic community of black churchgoers. The pastors, of course, have been paying attention. As the saying goes, "Money talks."
Unfortunately, the president's program, in its current form, is truly a case of good intentions gone awry. The grant concept is deeply flawed and I predict that the organizations getting these federal grants will in short order start looking like the same government programs we were trying to get away from.
For starters, the circular logic is compelling. Faith-based programs are successful because they are faith-based. If in order to get federal funding the services must be delivered devoid of the faith component, what exactly is a faith-based initiative? We serve up the doughnut on condition you only get the hole.My own life was changed by a coming to faith. I cannot imagine what a faith-based service would be if its central component was not religion. Surely, a religious service provider can conceivably deliver child care without talking about religion. But think about the contorted behavior we can expect. Like wondering if saying "God bless you" when a child sneezes will jeopardize your grant.
But more fundamentally, federal grants will change the way churches think about how to serve their communities. Time, energy and creativity will no longer be focused on coming up with creative solutions to problems but on how to structure programs to qualify for grants. Even now, as the welfare-reform time limits are running out on millions of single women with children, their pastors are busy attending seminars on how to apply for federal funding.
On the grant-decision-making side, we know it will be impossible for these decisions to take place independent of politics. It's the nature of politics that money and favors go hand in hand.
I believe the president is a man of genuine interest; however, there are better ways in which the objectives of the faith-based initiative can be achieved without the corrosive influence of government grants.
One approach, which is already starting to be done to a limited degree, is vouchers. This allows individuals to choose what program they want.
In conjunction with this, provide tax credits for supporting these institutions. This gets government out of the way and lets the marketplace truly work between private funders and organizations competing for funds.
The president could encourage community leaders to step forth to help mobilize funds for local faith-based institutions. In the last presidential campaign, for instance, the Republican Party raised upwards of a billion dollars through a pure grass-roots fund-raising effort. Why should such efforts be limited to politics?
In its current form, the faith-based initiative will succeed only in strengthening faith in government. It's bad for blacks and for all Americans. Let's hope we can move beyond this.