Respond to this Article October 2004

Faith Without Works

After four years, the president's faith-based policies have proven to be neither compassionate nor conservative.

By Amy Sullivan

When George W. Bush first hit the national political scene in the crowded field for the 2000 Republican nomination, what made him different, what made even liberal Americans take a second look, was his declaration that he was a "compassionate conservative." Unlike the flinty old conservatives of the past, Bush explained, a compassionate conservative would not be afraid to harness the power of government to minister to the unfortunate. But unlike traditional liberal Democrats, who relied on fumbling government bureaucracies, a compassionate conservative would empower and fund the charitable sector, particularly religious groups, to help those in need.

This breakthrough political slogan was embodied by a "faith-based initiative" that Bush talked about incessantly on the campaign trail and rolled out within the first month of taking over the White House. And Bush's image as a different kind of Republican was only reinforced by the tableau of black pastors, conservative evangelical leaders, and liberal crusaders for social justice who gathered around him as he introduced his faith-based domestic policy. The first part of the initiative sought to make it easier for religious organizations to get government grants to provide social services. Trumpeting the success of faith-based groups in Texas that ran drug rehabilitation and prison counseling programs, Bush argued that religious organizations could outperform their secular equivalents and so should be allowed to compete for the same government funds. The policy's second aspect was a proposed tax break to make it worthwhile for individuals to contribute more of their money to charities. By allowing non-itemizers (70 percent of taxpayers) to deduct their charitable contributions, the proposal could infuse as much as $80 billion into the charitable sector. Together, the two ideas embraced classic conservative principles: honoring the unique ability of religious organizations to help those in need, and empowering individuals in the civil sector instead of government.

Four years later, Bush's compassionate conservatism has turned out to be neither compassionate nor conservative. 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 the religious constituencies in Karl Rove's electoral plan for 2004 while making almost no effort to monitor their effectiveness. Meanwhile, the plan to extend tax credits for charitable giving has gone nowhere, despite the three enormous tax cut packages Bush has signed. Like any number of this administration's policies, the faith-based initiative has been so ill-considered, so utterly sacrificed to political expediency, and carried out with so little regard for the problems it was supposed to solve, that it bears only the faintest resemblance to the political philosophy it was supposed to embody. The history of the faith-based initiative tells us little about what could have been a truly innovative social policy, but speaks volumes about the cynical politics of the Bush administration.

Blind faith

From the very beginning, Bush has argued that faith-based groups should be judged on their results, and he insists that they do work better. The difference, he contends, is that they do more than simply minister to physical needs. On the campaign trail in the summer of 2000, Bush 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." Bush had little empirical evidence to back up the claim that religious organizations were more effective. But he relentlessly talked of two seemingly-promising programs that the Texas state government had supported while he was governor. One was Teen Challenge, a drug rehabilitation program that claimed an astonishing 86 percent success rate. The other was InnerChange, a counseling program for prisoners that boasted impressively low levels of recidivism among its graduates. Certain critics raised questions about the reliability of the studies that produced these figures. But Bush kept repeating the claims, and most of the press corps passed them along uncritically.

Once in office, Bush wasted no time setting up a new bureaucratic structure to cater specifically to the needs of faith-based groups. He created a White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and appointed political scientist John DiIulio (a Democrat) to run it before his first week was out; soon after, the White House sent proposed legislation to Congress that would expand federal grant eligibility to religious groups. But the proposal came loaded with a number of controversial provisions, including giving religious contractors the right not to hire employees of a different faith, a clear violation of federal anti-discrimination statutes. When the legislation, which DiIulio himself described as "an absolute political non-starter," went nowhere, Bush didn't bat an eye. He simply pulled out his pen and implemented his idea via a series of executive orders instead.

Critics worried that faith-based groups would be unduly privileged in the newly expanded grant-making world. For them, Bush had one word: results, results, results. In an interview with the religious Web site Beliefnet, he 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." 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."

This rhetoric matched the administration's focus in other policy areas--like education--on accountability. Conservatives traditionally criticize government programs for throwing good money after bad, rewarding those who have not proven themselves effective with hard numbers like higher test scores, lower poverty rates, or reduced recidivism. Mel Martinez, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, echoed the results-oriented sentiment in December 2002, telling an audience that "faith-based organizations should be judged on one central question: Do they work?" Conservatives thought they already knew the answer. "The fact is, we don't just suspect that faith-based programs work best," said Tucker Carlson on "Crossfire", "we know it."

Actually, we knew no such thing. But now we've had four years to measure results and reach a conclusion. Unfortunately, in the midst of all of the instructions included in the various executive orders, it turns out that the Bush administration forgot to require evaluation of organizations that receive government grants. According to a study released by the Pew-funded Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy in August 2004, "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." The accountability president has chosen not to direct any money toward figuring out whether faith-based approaches really work.

So, it's a good thing that some academics and private organizations have picked up the slack. In the last few years, a few studies have looked at both faith-based and secular social service providers, and they have particularly tried to replicate the incredible results boasted by the model Texas programs. The verdict? 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 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.

It will take several more years to rigorously scrutinize the relative abilities of faith-based and secular organizations to provide effective social services, so it is impossible to know whether these initial findings are true across the board. And maybe in a perfect world it would be worth testing Bush's hunch and giving faith-based groups access to funds in the effort to alleviate poverty and other social problems. The problem is that, under the Bush administration, the overall pot of money for social services has shrunk considerably. This means that well-established organizations that have provided services for decades are now competing with--and, in some cases, being displaced by--unproven, often less-successful groups, inflicting a double whammy upon the people who really need the help.

The chosen ones

The fact that there is no proof that faith-based programs are more effective has not stopped the president from claiming that they are. But, as he has in other areas--take the ever-changing rationale for invading Iraq--Bush simply shifts his emphasis when one argument begins to lose luster. These days, he is most likely to promote the faith-based initiative by contending that religious groups have been discriminated against and merely deserve the same chances that everyone else has. To lay the groundwork for this point, the administration published a report in the summer of 2001 assessing the "barriers" to government cooperation with religious groups. Titled "Unlevel Playing Field," this audit of federal agencies argued that faith-based organizations have been unfairly locked out of participation in government programs simply because of their religious nature.

And, in fact, federal policy has not always been blind to religious character. This is often for good reason--the Constitution prohibits government promotion of religion--but it sometimes seems arbitrary. In 2001, for example, after an earthquake struck Seattle, a number of groups applied for FEMA funds to rebuild structures, particularly historic buildings in the downtown district. When members of a synagogue applied for money, however, they were initially turned down because FEMA regulations didn't allow government funds to go toward the construction of houses of worship. After the group lodged a complaint, the rules were changed to make religious communities eligible for aid to rebuild their damaged structures. So the concern isn't entirely misplaced.

Yet despite some unfair kinks in federal contracting procedures, the truth is that the playing field isn't all that slanted against faith-based groups. Organizations like Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services have been mainstay providers of social services and have received government funding for decades. Instead of acknowledging this fact, the administration indulges in rhetoric that is almost a parody of left-wing identity politics--including making false accusations of discrimination. For example, the Department of Housing and Urban Development's audit of its dealings with religious groups reports that no faith-based organizations received funding under the department's $20 million Self-Help Homeownership Opportunity Program. HUD apparently forgot that Habitat for Humanity--which has received over half of that program's total funding in recent years--is a faith-based organization. The same report concludes that religious organizations were "banned" from being owners of housing projects under a Section 202 housing program for the elderly. Again, religious groups have comprised more than two-thirds of the program's sponsoring organizations during the program's 35-year history.

Far from offsetting any serious anti-religious discrimination, the new faith-based grant program seems to have devolved into a religious version of race-based set-aside programs. As The American Prospect first reported last spring, some states that are responsible for dispersing federal social service grants have altered their grant applications to include a box that potential grantees should check to indicate whether they are faith-based. In Massachusetts, several long-time recipients of funds for programs to help veterans learned the hard way that failure to check that box leads to the sudden denial of cash. When they identified themselves as "faith-based" the next time around, their applications were, not surprisingly, approved.

Some Bush officials are alarmingly honest about this quota-like system. When I asked Courtney McCormick, deputy director of the Department of Agriculture's faith-based office, what steps the administration is taking to track the effectiveness of faith-based grantees, she candidly replied, "That's not our concern." What they do care about, she said, is "getting more churches and community groups through the door to get access to funding."

Foiled by the death tax

The total absence of accountability for faith-based grantees and the institution of affirmative action for religious groups may seem like an abandonment of conservative principles. And it is. But that's small potatoes compared to what the Bush administration has done to the most conservative piece of the faith-based initiative--a plan to encourage charitable donations through private giving that could have revolutionized the world of social service organizations far more than the expansion of federal grant eligibility has done.

Currently, only individuals who itemize their taxes (usually those at the higher end of the income scale) are entitled to deduct their donations to charitable organizations. Bush's proposal was simple: Allow the nearly 85 million non-itemizers to take a charitable tax deduction, while also increasing the amount of money corporations can give tax-free to charities and permitting tax-free charitable donations from individual retirement accounts.

The president and his colleagues endorsed the idea as a way to equalize the tax code and promote a "culture of giving." Proclaimed then-candidate Bush in 1999: "We will encourage an outpouring of giving in America... encouraging giving by everyone in our society, not just the wealthy." Shortly after Bush took office, his top economic advisor, Larry Lindsey, laid out the plan at a White House press conference and explained, "We think that's an important part of solving America's social problems: not just giving it [the deduction] to roughly the 33 percent richest taxpayers, but to all taxpayers." At its core, the charitable giving proposal reflected a classic conservative belief that the best way to alleviate poverty and social ills is through private giving and civil society, not government programs. But liberals liked the idea as well because it finally acknowledged what they had been pointing out for years--while the largest share of charitable contributions may come from the very wealthy, when you look at the percentage of total wealth that individuals donate, Americans at the lowest end of the income scale give the most, an empirical illustration of the biblical "widow's mite" story. And they couldn't ignore the fact that a study by the group Independent Sector predicted the plan (which would cost an estimated $20 billion) would spur $80 billion in new donations to charity.

Potential givers and recipients lobbied on behalf of the plan, which the White House sent to Congress in early 2001 as part of its faith-based legislation. Universities, fund-raising associations, religious groups, advocates for the poor, and corporate lobbyists all urged that the provision be included in the tax plan barreling through the usually sluggish legislative process on the Hill. Quickly incorporated, the charitable giving provision seemed destined for speedy enactment and flew through both houses of Congress.

And then the plan that everybody liked, that would have unleashed the armies of compassion with an injection of eighty billion new dollars, ran into one insurmountable obstacle: greed. When congressional and White House negotiators sat down to iron out the differences in the two separate tax cut bills that had been approved by the House and Senate in the spring of 2001, they were faced with a price tag that topped $1 trillion. Fiscal conservatives started to balk, protesting that the cost was simply too high. Something had to go. Sitting next to each other on the potential chopping block were reductions in the tax rate, the repeal of the estate tax, and the charitable giving proposal. The choice for Republicans was, in the end, simple.

"In reality, the bottom line was that their priorities were in the rates, the death tax, marriage penalty, and the child credit," a senior Republican staffer told The Washington Post at the time. The charitable tax deductions were "never high on anyone's list," including the White House's. A Democratic aide involved in the negotiations agreed: "There wasn't a lot of push coming from the White House." Even worse, for advocates of charitable giving, was the fact that the repeal of the estate tax was expected to hurt charities by depriving them of an estimated $6 billion each year from bequests, a traditional way of getting around tax payments.

DiIulio was outraged, according to a source, by the political calculations which had tossed the charitable deduction overboard in favor of repealing the estate tax; he left his position at the White House in disgust just a few months later, telling Esquire writer Ron Suskind that "what you've got is everything, and I mean everything, being run by the political arm."

The White House assured supporters of their initiative that this was only a temporary set-back. "The president is hopeful this will happen," said press secretary Ari Fleischer soon after the deal was cut. "It's the right thing to do." Right or not, two additional tax bills came and went without charitable deductions. Hoping to capitalize on the proposal's popularity, Republicans reattached it to the broader faith-based legislation to expand grant eligibility to faith-based organizations and exempt those groups from restrictions against discrimination in hiring. "There was some sentiment in the House and the Senate that this was such a positive thing with legs that you could attach other things to it, and it would carry them along," Stanley-Carlson-Thies, who served as DiIulio's deputy at the White House, explained to me. What they found, however, was that "opposition to some of the religious hiring stuff was so strong that it put an anchor on the private giving instead." And so the faith-based bill languished for the rest of the congressional session.

In 2003, Republicans finally separated the charitable giving plan and introduced it as a stand-alone bill that passed both houses with overwhelming support (the House version received 408 votes, the Senate garnered 95). But the bill has hit another roadblock as a result of the political hardball Republicans have played over the last few years. Incensed after they were effectively shut out of the conference committee on Medicare, Democrats have now refused to take part in any more negotiations that aren't conducted fairly. Instead of pulling rank to order congressional Republicans to play nice and work out their differences on the charitable giving legislation, Bush has backed off, choosing to focus on other priorities. "The White House has not pushed this bill," says one lobbyist for a religious organization. "They could have it if they wanted it."

In the meantime, Bush never misses an opportunity on the stump to remind voters that, religious groups are now receiving $1 billion more in grants than they did four years ago as a result of faith-based initiative. It's not nothing, but it's also not much. Compared to the $80 billion they could be receiving through private giving, his boast can't help but seem like Dr. Evil's preening "one meeelion dollars."

A different kind of Republican

On the third night of the Republican convention, one of the many gauzy "W." video-mercials that appeared on giant screens in the middle of Madison Square Garden during slow stretches featured images of Bush surrounded by people of color, while in a voiceover the president reminded viewers, "I rallied the armies of compassion." More than with any other piece of his domestic policy agenda, Bush has linked himself personally to the faith-based initiative. During a campaign stop in March, he told a crowd of religious leaders that he--and he alone--was responsible for the changes that have taken place. "Congress wouldn't act," Bush said, "so I signed an executive order--that means I did it on my own."

And so he did. Bush alone is responsible for supporting the distribution of taxpayer dollars without requiring proof that the funding produces results, for establishing a new government bureaucracy to give special help to a "discriminated" community that has always been on equal footing with everyone else, and for encouraging religious organizations to rely on government funding instead of encouraging private donations. It turns out that a "compassionate conservative" is a different kind of Republican after all. Just not the kind we expected.

Amy Sullivan is a Washington Monthly editor.


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