An advocate with an edge

Appointee: The president's faith-based funding initiative finds direction from a mercurial leader who some say may goad the debate rather than guide it.

April 26, 2001|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - John J. DiIulio Jr., the University of Pennsylvania scholar in charge of the president's signature plan to give federal money to faith-based social service programs, has been called the Bush appointee least likely to keep his job.

It's not necessarily because the mercurial social scientist is a Democrat working in a Republican White House. Or because the faith-based initiative, the centerpiece of Bush's "compassionate conservative" agenda, is such a land mine of constitutional, political and bureaucratic obstacles that some say its chance of congressional passage is dim.

It's mainly because DiIulio, 42, who will try to sell the plan on Capitol Hill today when he testifies before a House subcommittee, is an independent-minded, outspoken and at times pugnacious provocateur who is a glaring exception in the aggressively buttoned-down, stick-to-the-script Bush White House.

"He is someone who I see as a real risk to the Bush forces," says Brookings Institution scholar Thomas Mann, a DiIulio friend and former colleague. "He is someone who speaks his mind."

Indeed, within weeks of taking the White House job, DiIulio enraged conservatives by publicly declaring that evangelicals - whom he had a week earlier described flippantly as "Bible-thumping" - only paid lip service to the needs of the urban poor. One conservative religious leader immediately called for his resignation.

On the other hand, DiIulio's commitment to helping inner-city minorities by allowing their places of worship to compete for federal social service contracts has excited hundreds of African-American religious and political leaders and made them unlikely allies of this administration.

Faith-based legislation, which has bipartisan support and bipartisan opposition, is on a much slower track than Bush anticipated - moving in the House, but stalled in the Senate - because it has been attacked from nearly every point along the ideological spectrum.

Some conservatives worry that churches will become corrupted by any tie to the government, or will lose the very element of faith that makes their service programs, such as drug treatment, job training, mentoring or prison rehabilitation, successful.

"I would strongly advise Baptist groups not to participate," says the Rev. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptists' Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. "The reason is one phrase: government oversight. Government oversight has a way of becoming government meddling."

In the past, large religious groups, in order to receive government contracts, formed separate nonprofit, secular entities - such as Catholic Charities or Jewish Federations in America - to avoid church-state conflicts.

Under Bush's proposal, smaller, community-based organizations that don't have the resources to form separate entities would be eligible to apply directly for federal grants, contracts or vouchers.

Even if such organizations receive public support, DiIulio said at a luncheon with journalists, "their leaders and volunteers should be able to hum hymns while they hammer nails, say `God bless you' whether or not someone has sneezed and they should not have to hide or drape their religious iconography."

The fact that any religious group, however unorthodox, may compete for federal funds is also a sticking point for some conservatives.

Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson has said that such groups as the Hare Krishnas and the Unification Church of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon "could all become financial beneficiaries."

On the other side, many liberals and civil libertarians worry that the initiative would break down the constitutional church-state firewall. They are concerned taxpayer money would be financing programs that allow discrimination in hiring, pointing out that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 permits religious groups to hire staff members who share their religious beliefs.

This argument has become a particularly vexing one for DiIulio's office, especially since one of the chief supporters of the faith-based effort, Connecticut Democratic Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, said this week that he doubts he could support a provision that creates "a lower standard of civil rights protection" in a religious group receiving federal funding.

The public appears to be as conflicted about the initiative as the politicians. According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, most Americans like the concept but have grave concerns about its implementation.

The burly DiIulio - who, true to his reputation for not returning phone calls, did not respond to more than a month's worth of interview requests - seems to relish controversy and a good fight.

Once described as "Joe Pesci with a Ph.D.," his tough-guy image has followed him from his childhood days in the urban combat zone of South Philadelphia - where his grandmother was mugged three times and his uncle stabbed to death - through his Ivy League career.

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