NYTimes: Rightwingers getting cold feet on faith based initiative

3 Mar 2001

mirele@xmission.com (Mirele)

Gee, the possibility that Our Favorite Cult might get money is chilling the atmosphere.

BTW, if Pat Robertson or his minions are reading this, Scientology is not a non-Western belief system. It's home-grown, baby.

Deana Holmes



March 3, 2001

For Religious Right, Bush's Charity Plan Is Raising Concerns


President Bush's plan to funnel government money to religious charities is generating unlikely criticism from some conservative Christian leaders who had promoted the idea for years but are now voicing reservations about putting it into effect.

The White House, which opened its Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives just last week, was prepared for attacks from civil libertarians and religious leaders who have said his plan will undermine the separation of church and state.

But now the initiative is under fire for different reasons from conservative religious leaders who should have been Mr. Bush's staunchest allies. In recent days two longtime Bush supporters, the religious broadcaster Pat Robertson and Marvin Olasky, author of the book "Compassionate Conservatism," have attacked the idea of encouraging partnerships between government and religious groups, and other conservatives are raising similar doubts.

Their concerns reflect long-held fears among conservative and evangelical Christians that by accepting government financing for endeavors from homeless shelters to job training programs, religious programs invite government meddling in their mission and message.

Some of the religious groups that have offered tepid support, or none at all, for Mr. Bush's program are the same ones that for years argued that the government discriminates against religious programs by primarily financing secular ones. The Southern Baptist Convention's North American Mission Board said that while "optimistic," it had urged its ministries to "proceed with caution," explaining, "There can be a tendency over time for the government to attempt to control that which it subsidizes."

A spokesman for Focus on the Family, the multimedia ministry led by Dr. James C. Dobson, said it was still studying the initiative. And only half the leaders of the National Association of Evangelicals said in a survey last year that they were in favor of government financing for religious charities. The board is to vote on a resolution of support next week.

The president has said he will not require charities to suppress their religious doctrines in order to receive government financing. But Mr. Olasky says he and other conservative Christians he has spoken with have grown concerned that the Bush administration, under scrutiny from the church/state separationists, will backpedal and refuse to finance programs that are the most overtly evangelistic, or will try to limit the religious component of their work.

"It is a tightrope they may not be able to walk," Mr. Olasky said in an interview. "Any time they say, `We're going to allow evangelism,' they will be shot at by the left. If they say, `We're not going to allow evangelism,' they will be shot at by the right."

And Mr. Robertson raised different doubts on his television program "The 700 Club" last week, calling it "appalling" that the plan could result in government contracts for programs run by non-Western religions and newer religious movements like the Church of Scientology and the Unification Church.

"This thing could be a real Pandora's box," Mr. Robertson said on the program. "And what seems to be such a great initiative can rise up to bite the organizations as well as the federal government."

The initiative has also attracted criticism from a wide variety of other religious leaders. Fourteen liberal and moderate Baptist leaders issued a statement urging rejection of the initiative last week. About 350 leaders with the Jewish Council for Public Affairs interrogated John J. DiIulio Jr., who heads the new White House office, at a meeting in Washington this week.

Executives of Lutheran Services in America and Catholic Charities have criticized the part of Mr. Bush's initiative that permits aid to religious agencies that discriminate in hiring. And even a coalition of wiccans and pagans has complained in a letter to the president.

Mr. DiIulio did not respond to requests for an interview. In speeches, he has suggested that the controversy has detracted attention from the other goals of his office: increasing private charitable giving, and examining previous contracts of federal agencies with religious and community social service programs.

Mr. Bush defended his initiative in a news conference on Feb. 22, saying, "I believe that so long as there's a secular alternative available, we ought to allow individuals who we're helping to be able to choose a program that may be run by a faith- based program."

A survey of more than 1,200 religious congregations in 1998 conducted by Mark Chaves, a sociology professor at the University of Arizona, found that only 28 percent of politically conservative congregations were willing to apply for government financing for charity work, compared with 51 percent of politically moderate or liberal congregations.

Only in recent years, with a younger generation of evangelical Christian pastors coming into leadership, have these churches considered going to the government for financial support for their social services, said Richard Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals.

"The younger generation is far more receptive than the older generation, who is worried about government infringement on religious integrity, and the government aiding and abetting groups whose views they don't endorse, and who they may find complete anathema," said Mr. Cizik, who supports the Bush initiative and has been hearing the objections as he tries to drum up support among evangelicals.

The Rev. Ray Gimenez, an evangelical leader in Clinton, Iowa, is a supporter of government aid for religious charities, even though he has his own cautionary tale. His ministry for the homeless, Victory Center Rescue Mission, won a $367,750 contract from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to open transitional housing.

It had already spent $100,000 of the money to buy and rehabilitate a building, when HUD insisted that it form a separate tax-exempt organization from the ministry, with a separate board. The ministry refused, and now HUD wants its money back, which Mr. Gimenez says his board is resisting.

In another example cited by Mr. Olasky, the Agriculture Department stopped delivering surplus food to a Memphis soup kitchen because of sermons after meals. Such situations have made Mr. Olasky wary of direct government grants. He thinks the Bush administration should focus on the less divisive part of its plan to offer more tax credits for individual givers.

"That way, if people want to support Judaism or Christianity or Islam or Scientology, they can," Mr. Olasky said. "It's not a question of a government official deciding. I think that approach would win support from evangelicals, and the American Civil Liberties Union."


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