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Blind Faith and Fabrications in Bush White House

Story by Bill Berkowitz

Art by Doug Minkler

Standard text version


"It's true that much attention is being placed on the war in Iraq, but there's also another war that's going on. It's a culture war that really gets to the heart of the questions about what is the role of faith in the public square."
- Jim Towey, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, during a conference promoting the funding of religious groups engaged in social service activities, July 2004

"President Bush does not want to proselytize or fund religion. We're talking about things like job training and substance abuse prevention, and opening up to small groups that have been shut [out] by the ACLU and a radical fringe that wants an extreme separation of church and state."
- Jim Towey, San Francisco Chronicle, August 17, 2004

In the coming year, while secular organizations providing much-needed social services to the poor will likely need the Jaws of Life to pry money from the Bush administration, faith-based organizations will be taking in money hand over fist. In 2003 alone, the administration handed out $1.17 billion in grants to religious organizations, and if the president has his way, individual states will soon be handing over hundreds of millions of dollars to faith-based organizations.

A report entitled "The Expanding Administrative Presidency: George W. Bush and the Faith-Based Initiative," issued this past summer by the Rockefeller Institute of Government in Albany, N.Y., pointed out that religious organizations have now become involved in a wide range of "government-encouraged activities... from building strip malls for economic improvement to promoting child car seats." The report also noted that Bush's faith-based programs "mark a major shift in the constitutional separation of church and state."

Four years ago, an impressive array of pastors, preachers, rabbis and community leaders shared the White House platform with President Bush as he announced the establishment of The White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. As months passed, and Congress debated some of the thorny issues surrounding Bush's faith-based proposal - including fudging the lines separating church and state, and the propensity of religious organizations to discriminate in their hiring practices against those of other religions, or sexual orientation - the president moved forward, installing faith-based branch offices in a number of federal agencies.

By June 2004, he had added the Department of Commerce, the Small Business Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs to seven other agencies that had already been involved with faith-based projects.

Despite the administration's inability to pass a comprehensive faith-based package through Congress, "Few if any presidents in recent history have reached as deeply into or as broadly across the government to implement a presidential initiative administratively," Rockefeller Institute director Richard Nathan said.

During the 2000 presidential campaign, Bush spoke repeatedly of the ability of faith-based organizations to transform lives. Armed with a great deal of faith but little data, the Texas governor "told audiences that religious organizations succeed where others fail 'because they change hearts, they convince a person to turn their life over to Christ.' Whenever 'my administration sees a responsibility to help people,' he promised, 'we will look first to faith-based organizations that have shown their ability to save and change lives.'"

After four years and throwing hundreds of millions at the problem, are faith-based organizations serving the needs of the poor better than secular organizations? Certainly in an administration concerned with "results," there must be studies proving the efficacy of the Bush administration's faith-based theories. But there aren't.

According to Amy Sullivan, there aren't such studies. In an October 2004 story in the Washington Monthly entitled "Faith Without Works: After four years, the president's faith-based policies have proven to be neither compassionate nor conservative," Sullivan points out that the administration has failed to systematically track and "monitor the effectiveness" of programs run by faith-based groups.

"The policy of funding the work of faith-based organizations has, in the face of slashed social service budgets, devolved into a small pork-barrel program that offers token grants to... religious constituencies... while making almost no effort to monitor their effectiveness...."

"Results, results, results," was Bush's oft-repeated mantra. Sullivan cites an interview with the religious website Beliefnet, where Bush was asked whether he would support government money going to a Muslim group that taught prisoners the Koran. "The question I'd be asking," Bush replied, "is what are the recidivism rates? Is it working? I wouldn't object at all if the program worked." According to Sullivan, "four more times in the interview, Bush mentioned 'results,' noting that instead of promoting religion, 'I'm promoting lower recidivism rates, and we will measure to make sure that's the case.' "

Where do we stand in terms of measuring "results?" According to Sullivan, "it turns out that the Bush administration forgot to require evaluation of organizations that receive government grants."

An August 2004 study released by the Pew-funded Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy found that "while more elaborate scientific studies are underway, the White House has relied on largely anecdotal evidence to support the view that faith-based approaches produce better long-term results."

Sullivan reports, "There is no evidence that faith-based organizations work better than their secular counterparts; and, in some cases, they are actually less effective.

"In one study funded by the Ford Foundation, investigators found that faith-based job training programs placed only 31 percent of their clients in full-time employment while the number for secular organizations was 53 percent. And Teen Challenge's [a Texas-based drug program often spoken highly of by Bush] much ballyhooed 86 percent rehabilitation rate falls apart under examination - the number doesn't include those who dropped out of Teen Challenge and relies on a disturbingly small sample of those graduates who self-reported whether they had remained sober, significantly tilting the results."

In Bush's second term, he is "setting its sights on money doled out by the states," for social services, the Associated Press recently reported. "The goal is to persuade states to funnel more of the federal money for social service programs that they administer to 'faith-based organizations.' "

To encourage states to participate, the White House has hosted a series of conferences. Jim Towey, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, has met with state leaders and the president "has personally lobbied governors," the Associated Press reported. "The White House office also is providing states with technical assistance in setting up their own faith-based offices." Thus far, some 21 governors - both Democrat and Republican - have set up their own faith-based offices.

The White House isn't alone in tutoring faith-based groups about how to apply for government grants. The Community & Faith-Based Grants Institute, an organization run by the Tucson, Arizona-based Faith-Based Institute, is offering a "video seminar on Faith Based Initiative grant writing [which] picks up where the free grant writing seminars by the government leave off."

The Institute has lined up an impressive array of former administration insiders and veterans of various U.S. charities as seminar instructors, including Dave Donaldson, the founder and CEO of We Care America which "works closely with the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives to educate and engage the Christian community on the Faith-Based Initiative." Other Institute instructors include Michael McCarthy, manager of The Center for Capacity Development, "a fee-for-service division" of The WorkPlace, Inc.; Amy Sherman, a Senior Fellow of the Hudson Institute's Welfare Policy Center and the founder of Charlottesville Abundant Life Ministries; and Dr. Stanley Carlson-Thies, director of the Civitas Program in Faith in Public Affairs, The Center for Public Justice and former OFBCI staff member.

Jim Towey sees a bright future for faith-based organizations to shoulder a larger part of the load in providing for people in need. "We're on the sunrise side of the mountain," he proclaimed.

While it's a long way from the cushy air-conditioned offices of Jim Towey's White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, to the dusty devastated streets of Fallujah, the president's war in Iraq and his crusade to have faith-based organizations be the primary engine for delivering social services to the needy in this country may have a lot more in common than at first meets the eye.

Bush's war in Iraq was built on fabrications and faith: The administration fabricated claims about Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction, Saddam Hussein's relationship with al-Qaeda's Osama bin Laden, and the Iraqi dictator's connection to 9/11. Bush faithfully believed that his wild-eyed neoconservative advisors would be proved right when they predicted that U.S. troops would be welcomed with open arms by the people of Iraq, and that reconstruction would be a "slam dunk," to borrow a phrase from former CIA director George Tenet. The neocons were wrong and reconstruction has been a non-starter.

The president's faith-based initiative - the centerpiece of his domestic policy agenda - is also a combination of fabrications and faith, with a batch of anecdotes thrown in for good measure. Despite the lack of any concrete data, the Bush administration insisted that faith-based groups would provide social services to the poor and addicted more effectively than secular programs. No data existed four years ago, and little more than anecdotal evidence exists today. In addition, the president's personal narrative - saved from the ravages of alcoholism by his faith - is driving the program.

Built on faith and fabrications, President Bush's long hard slog in Iraq continues to produce death, destruction and a growing insurgency. At home, as poverty deepens, Bush's faith-based initiative, also built on fabrications and faith, is now heading toward a state near you.





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