Attack of the Fuzzy-Faithed Rovians
Clarkson, Frederick, The Humanist
I HAVE NEVER BELIEVED that religiosity was the primary underlying reason for George W. Bush's hallmark "Faith-Based Initiative." I see it as primarily an updated and expanded version of the spoils system: sending resources to prop up the base, reward friends, and buy off or neutralize opposition.
On January 18, 2005, the Los Angeles Times published an investigation of this program that demonstrated that most of the money went to religious groups in swing states, particularly African-American churches. The paper demonstrated a direct correlation between money going in and a significant increase in the African-American vote for Bush between 2000 and 2004.
In one sense there is nothing new in this. There have been many GOP efforts to divide the African-American churches over the years, and this is but one of them. The GOP has sought to degrade the historic Democratic coalition and to reduce the volatile issues of race as a moral and political factor working against them. Conservatives, including conservative Christians, were mostly on the wrong side or on the sidelines of one of the great moral struggles of the twentieth century--the African-American civil rights movement--and they are still paying the price. Recently GOP National Chairman Ken Mehlman noted that the party intends to further improve its numbers among African-Americans, Jews, and women over the next four years. So we can reasonably expect to see more such taxpayer funds directed to selected religions. Journalist and blogger Max Blumenthal calls it "bribery."
That said, let's recall that Bush was unable to get legislative authorization for a broad faith-based agenda during his first term, so the administration did everything it could to use executive orders to fast track cash to faith-based groups--this, while doing everything it could to underfund and overregulate public agencies. It's an old Republican strategy to discredit and hobble government agencies and programs they don't like, and to turn taxpayer money over to private business. Now religious groups are beneficiaries of the spoils as well. (That the justification for this is often "efficiency" is beyond preposterous and warrants reframing from a reinvigorated Democratic Party.) What we are seeing in this--and of course in the attempted privatization of social security, no-bid defense contracts for the war in Iraq, and tax cuts for the rich, among other things--is the transfer of wealth, the common wealth, to base constituents and prospective constituents of the Republican Party.
We have seen this at the state level in the efforts to direct money for public education into religious and for-profit "charter" schools. Lack of rigorous evaluation and oversight has meant more than a few scams, and more than a few grants handed over to incompetent operators and overt proselytizers, as has been documented by Americans United for Separation of Church and State and reported in Church and State magazine. This, and Americans United's effective public opposition to the program, hasn't gone unnoticed at the White House.
James Towey, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, reiterated the president's commitment to the program in a speech in December 2004. In the same speech he denounced opponents of the program as "secular extremists" and singled out the Reverend Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United. Not only is Lynn a minister in the United Church of Christ but the AU board and chapter leaders are believers of many faiths, and many of them are clergy.
Towey's attack on the religious faith of people who oppose the political program of the administration is a symptom of exactly what is wrong with the Faith-Based Initiative: it is not now nor has it ever been about faith, except in the sense that the idea of faith is being cleverly used to promote a political program. …