An initiative that inspires little faith

July 15, 2008|By C. Welton Gaddy

Funding faith seems to be in fashion these days. President Bush highlighted his faith-based initiative in his most recent State of the Union address, and the day after the speech he visited a prisoner re-entry program in Baltimore. Now Sen. Barack Obama has announced that, if elected, he would continue the faith-based initiative but under somewhat different guidelines; unlike President Bush and Sen. John McCain, Mr. Obama would not allow groups accepting tax dollars to engage in religious discrimination in hiring. That is an improvement, but it doesn't go far enough to safeguard against the pitfalls that doomed the Bush administration's faith-based initiative.

Religious charities have received government aid for charitable missions for decades, but only if the charity was a separate 501(c)(3) organization, apart from the church or denomination that supports it. Mr. Bush changed the law to allow government money to be given directly to houses of worship, and Mr. Obama's plan would continue this practice. We at the Interfaith Alliance hope Mr. Obama will change his mind, because establishing a separate charity is a crucial step that upholds the integrity of both religion and government.

When the government gives money directly to religious institutions, those funds are mixed with other private funds into a single pot of money. Thus, it becomes impossible for a church to say whether the government's money is being used for a soup kitchen, which is permissible, or for missionary work, which is not allowed.

And if the government needs to investigate waste, fraud, or abuse in a faith-based grant, it would have to investigate the internal affairs of that church. Government should not be in the business of sifting through a church's collection plates every Sunday.

Mr. Obama also needs to make clear that funds appropriated to faith-based charities would be done in a transparent and above-board manner. This would be a welcome change, because for seven years the Bush administration has clandestinely funneled money to faith-based groups on the religious right.

Under current White House policy, faith-based charities are supposed to be evaluated according to an objective rating formula, but former White House faith-based initiative staffer David Kuo confessed the truth. In his book, Tempting Faith, he writes, "It was obvious that the ratings were a farce. National organizations like Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America scored an 85.33 [out of 100] while something called Jesus and Friends Ministry from California, a group with little more than a post office box, scored 89.33."

We do not know how many other fly-by-night charities are receiving government funds, because President Bush's faith-based office is set up to avoid congressional oversight. But it's clear that Mr. Bush has used the faith-based initiative as a campaign tool to achieve his electoral aims.

Charities, whether religious or secular, deserve a real commitment. And the millions of needy people in America should never be forced to submit to a religious agenda to receive services. Mr. Obama had pledged to uphold these principles if elected, but those of us who recall how Mr. Bush's rhetoric differed from his policies will be watching closely.

The Rev. C. Welton Gaddy is president of the Interfaith Alliance in Washington. His e-mail is

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