Faith-Based Flimflam: How the White House Is Diverting Public Funds and Personnel to Woo African-American Voters and Help Republican Candidates

Article excerpt

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R) is seeking re-election in her West Virginia congressional district this year, and she knows winning a second term in the House of Representatives won't be easy.

In 2000, Capito eked out a narrow, 5,000-vote victory in a district that has historically voted Democratic. In fact, Capito is only the third Republican in almost 80 years to serve this congressional district, and the Democratic National Committee has indicated that it will be focusing intense attention on the race in November.

Capito, however, is not without political assistance from Washington, D.C. In particular, she's benefiting from ties to President George W. Bush's "faith-based" office.

James Towey, head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, visited the area in August to travel with Capito and present a $25,000 check to a computer-training program run from a Baptist church in the town of Kanawha.

Towey's recent travels to offer grants to faith-based charities, and the White House's political interest in competitive House districts, are neither coincidental nor uncommon.

Capito is one of many ideological and partisan allies of President Bush facing difficult campaigns this year. The White House is all too aware of the fact that the greater the number of Republican losses in November, the harder it will be for the president to advance his agenda.

In addition, the administration is surveying the political landscape and realizing that the GOP will need stronger support from African-American voters, who have traditionally rejected Republican overtures, to win key political campaigns nationwide.

The Bush administration's political strategists believe the "faith-based" initiative may be the political weapon they need to address both of these critical concerns.

During the 2000 presidential campaign, Bush repeatedly emphasized his desire to lower the wall that separates church and state and allow the federal government to finance the work of churches and other houses of worship. After his inauguration, one of the president's first orders of business was the creation of an office that dealt almost exclusively with breaking down so-called "barriers" to public subsidies for faith-based organizations.

At the time, Bush's public rhetoric focused on aid to the disadvantaged and downtrodden. While unveiling the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in January 2001, Bush spoke of a "call to conscience" to "provide practical help to people in need." He emphasized the non-partisan, consensus nature of the project and his intention to offer public funds to religious ministries because these groups "have proven their power to save and change lives."

Even after intense debate began over the faith-based initiative, and the effort drew criticism from the left, right and center, Bush nevertheless fought for the plan and worked with Democrats such as Sen. Joe Lieberman on getting the measure through Congress.

Recently, however, another agenda has come to light. While the administration continues to advocate for the faith-based initiative, it does so while quietly concentrating on partisan political goals in the 2002 election. In fact, Bush's White House seems especially focused on using the larger endeavor as part of an aggressive outreach effort to African-American voters in competitive political states and districts.

The strategy, thus far, has been simple and straightforward: The Bush administration is sending faith-based officials to carefully selected locations to appear with Republican candidates while touting publicly funded grants to religious groups. At the same time, the White House is directing special attention to African-American religious leaders in the hopes it will translate into increased political support on Election Day. …