Next Steps for the President's Faith-Based Initiative

Report Civil Society

Next Steps for the President's Faith-Based Initiative

July 10, 2002 11 min read
Jim Towey
Senior Research Fellow

In 1978, Policy Review, then published by The Heritage Foundation, printed an article by Robert A. Nisbet entitled "The Dilemma of Conservatives in a Populist Society." Asked about the future of conservatism, and what are its essential elements, the author's first point was "the indispensability of religion, of a rooted awareness of the sacred."

I think President Bush's faith-based initiative fundamentally is a recognition of this. It's rooted in the sacred: of that awareness of the value of human beings that live in our midst, of their God-given dignity, of the responsibility that we have to them.

What has impressed me about the President's passion on this subject is his own strong belief in the role that faith-based organizations play in society, and his willingness to shepherd this issue through some complicated terrain.

We recognize that a lot of the approaches to dealing with society's ruin aren't working very well. Faith-based organizations often provide the most successful and effective programs there are. When we see the homeless, the addicted, the hungry, welfare-to-work moms, prisoners, at-risk youth, we see faith-based organizations in the midst of those battles, successfully redeeming those lives and helping them return to the mainstream. That's exciting stuff.


I knew that the President's proposal would be badly misrepresented in the public square, and it has been. As soon as the President announced it, individuals began crying that the wall between church and state was crumbling down and that this was a tragedy. (This time-honored strict separation, by the way, is only about 40 years old when you look at Supreme Court law.) But in fact, the Salvation Army receives hundreds of millions of tax dollars today. So does Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services, the Jewish Federations throughout the country, the Muslim organizations that do social service. For a fair amount of our country's history faith-based organizations have been given funds by the federal government to provide needed social services.

President Bush has articulated the importance of faith-based institutions to our society. He did this in a speech he gave in Indianapolis in July 1999, when he said:

In every instance where my administration sees a responsibility to help people, we will look first to faith-based organizations, charities and community groups that have shown their ability to save and change lives. We will make a determined attack on need, by promoting the compassionate acts of others.

The President has laid down a challenge to us as citizens: How do we deal with the scandal of unmet human needs? I had the privilege to live in a home for people with AIDS, but it was a faith-based home. The people that came into this home were badly battered. They had been prostitutes, drug addicts. Their self-image, their recognition of their human dignity had been deeply wounded.

I watched them reclaim this through relationships, through the work of the volunteers and Mother Teresa's nuns who welcomed them and treated them and respected them and loved them.

President Bush repeatedly states that government can't love, that government cannot develop relationships.

When I ran Florida's Health and Human Services department, I saw very starkly the limitations that are placed on what government can do. Food stamp workers should not be befriending the client in front of me. It's not their job to befriend the client; in fact, that could lead to losing their jobs.

But with faith-based organizations it's different. That's why they're there, working in these miserable jobs, with low pay and incredible caseloads. It's difficult work. I think they undertake it because of the spiritual imperative in their lives to love their neighbors as themselves. But for the grace of God that could be you that's fallen on hard times.

Government is often not very capable when it comes to dealing with chronic poverty and the roots of it. And so I think the challenge that the President saw is how to better utilize this great resource in our community, our faith-based and our grassroots groups.

These grassroots groups often are not by identity a religious-based organization or faith-based, but they have faith field workers, people living out their lives trying to help others. You see that at Goodwill, the United Way, and a lot of small groups in all of our communities working to try to lift up the fallen.

And I think it's impressive that President Bush has chosen to enter this arena knowing full well that there would be efforts to discredit his mission and his work.


The Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives has achieved a great deal in the sixteen months since it began under John DiIulio's leadership. We've created five Cabinet center faith-based offices. We've conducted what I believe is the first-ever audit of government programs that fund social service providers, and we find that there isn't much data out there. It's very hard to determine if an organization is faith-based or not, because we can't ask the question.

This is the great Catch-22. If we asked groups to check a box if they are faith-based, we would be accused of a screening process to favor these groups. How then can we evaluate the data and better understand whether or not groups are making significant contributions?

I went to the Bowery Mission in New York City, a homeless shelter that has been on the Lower East Side for 122 years. It has lots of caring volunteers, lots of community connections. The work they do is impressive. Under its nine-month program the recidivism rate is 7 percent.

The City of New York has 12,000 shelter beds; some of the city-run shelters are over a thousand beds each. Think about the quality of life in those kind of facilities. They look like little more than prisons. And the recidivism rate back into the shelter system is 90 percent.

I think President Bush's point was this: Let's have a level playing field and let's look at outcomes. Let's look at the programs that actually work in our communities.

My whole desire with this job is about the word "compassion." How can we more compassionately reach out to those in our midst who suffer, who are the victims of chronic poverty, who are trapped in their circumstances? How do we effectively help them? What are the programs that really make a difference? Can we even ask the question? Are the federal grants only going out to the groups that write the best proposals? Does a small church have to hire a grant writer, a CPA, and an attorney to get a $20,000 food pantry grant? This is the craziness of the situation we find ourselves in.

President Bush's fundamental question is: Is there another way of doing things? Is there something we can do that might lift up these people who suffer? So we're focusing on the homeless and the hungry, on at-risk youth and prisoners, addicts, welfare-to-work families, those groups that often find already some faith-based organization in the vineyards.

The Unlevel Playing Field report from last summer indicated that there were real barriers to faith-based organizations even being considered for a federal grant. If a group had a religious name or if its governing articles contained a faith statement, it would be excluded from consideration by some federal or state bureaucrat who decided that church-state separation meant such a group could not receive federal funds. Nonsense.

The legislation that Senators Santorum and Lieberman have introduced with about 20 other Senators--including Senator Daschle--would remove these barriers, so if a group has a mezuzah at the door or a cross on the wall, a religious name, or governing articles of a particular faith, it can still compete for federal funds. That seems to be sensible, and it doesn't at all seem to violate the First Amendment.


Our office hopes to take this message on the road, to go out into the country to identify the model programs that are working. When I say working, I mean programs that are changing peoples' lives.

The President returns to this theme repeatedly. The focus is on changing lives, not simply doling out money and running programs. And the best way we see this being done is often through these grass-roots and faith-based groups at the community level. We work very closely with the large groups, too, and I've had the privilege of working with groups secular and sacred throughout the time that I've been in this work. It's a tough job.

The key piece of it is relationship: the relationship of human beings encountered; the recognition that with the poor we can develop relationships, that they have a gift to give us.

This is often very difficult for government to accept, but we certainly see it in the smaller groups. They unleash a great deal of love and mercy in our communities. They call us to question our values and our principles in this materialistic society in which we often value things more than people. They challenge us to start looking at how can we better recognize the fact that we have some responsibility in this land of plenty to people in need. I can't fix everyone, I can't help everyone, but I'd like to do my part.

We are going to be looking at model programs wherever they are. We're going to be looking at intermediary organizations which are able to reach the smaller grassroots groups that are entirely intimidated when it comes to dealing with the federal government.

I started a small not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organization. At some point you start hearing about a federal grant for this or a federal grant for that. It's intimidating for a small little group to think about taking federal money, with the red tape and all the worries about unwittingly violating this regulation and that obscure rule or upsetting this bureaucrat. Why bother? Why look at it?

A lot of groups would like to do more in their community, and need the resources to do it, but they have been intimidated when it comes to applying for federal funds.

So very often those funds just go to the same old providers, year after year, whether their outcomes are measured or not, whether there are any results or not, whether peoples' lives are being turned around or not. That's senseless. We owe it to the poor to start looking at new approaches and new strategies that might work.

So President Bush established his Compassion Capital Fund, which was appropriated $30 million for this year, to provide technical assistance to small groups and grassroots groups. It helps them learn how to seek a federal grant or administratively house a grant with a large provider and get a subgrant from it, and not have to deal with some of that red tape. And make it clear that there are do's and don'ts when you take federal funds.

One of the jobs of our office is to communicate what's in bounds and what's out of bounds. You don't preach on Uncle Sam's dollar. If you can't abide by that, it's going to be hard for you to receive federal funds.

President Bush respects the work of groups that choose not to take federal or state or local tax dollars because they don't want to feel inhibited in how they go about their work. But we also find many groups that for years have not compromised their prophetic mission with the delivery of social services. The Salvation Army is a good example. They do as Mother Teresa once said--preach without preaching, not by words but by example.

I think this will always be a very controversial area. There will always be concerns and criticisms; there will be discussions it seems in every Congress about these issues. I think that's healthy. I don't have any illusions that this is going to be some ride on a tire swing, but I do feel that this debate is critically important.


I've been very encouraged by how President Bush has approached this, with steadfast and dedicated resolve to see that this initiative is advanced against all odds. This is an issue that is very near and dear to his heart. It's an important statement of what it means for him to be President, what he wants to accomplish, what he feels he's going to be able to do.

That excites all of us, because our office is pretty small. We have eight employees, some employees detailed from the agencies that we work with, some White House interns, and one congressional fellow. So this is a relatively small White House office. It's a mustard seed.

At the same time, I feel that if this office serves the President well, it is going to make a difference out in the street. I will have failed the President, and he should dismiss me, if after some period of time we don't see a difference in the lives of the poor, if we don't see new providers coming on line and model programs being highlighted.

It's not enough just to establish good processes and such. We have to stay on this and make sure that this is ultimately going to make a difference in the lives of the poor.

We also are going to try to work with the corporate and philanthropic community. Foundations have over a trillion dollars in assets, but they are often very reluctant to give to faith-based organizations. They feel these groups are too controversial. Corporations are very reluctant to ever consider giving to faith-based groups that provide vital social services. Again, we just feel there should be a level playing field. Faith-based groups should not be systematically excluded from the public square. They should be considered like anybody else, and the focus should be on outcomes and results.

So the President has talked about some kind of gathering that would start to focus attention on that very issue. I personally feel that we are making headway. We are very confident about the legislation in the Senate. We feel that the passage of legislation and its arrival on the President's desk is going to be the beginning of something, not the end. This is going to be the beginning of a steadfast and renewed commitment on these issues that I've discussed.

Mother Teresa was asked at the end of her life if didn't she get a little discouraged. After all, for every person that she picked up in the gutter, there were still 10 people dying all alone out there in India. Didn't she get discouraged by this? "No," she said. "God doesn't call me to be successful, but to be faithful."

I think what unites us as Americans, whether we have that faith dimension in our lives or not, is a recognition that we have to be faithful particularly to those whose needs are very stubborn and resistant to getting help.

We can't quit on our addicts, we can't quit on our homeless, we can't quit on prisoners when they get out. Our society often looks for quick fixes and fast solutions, but there has to be a commitment to faithfulness to our fellow citizens, particularly those in need.

The President's initiative has attempted to focus the spotlight on ways that we can remain faithful to our addicts, to our homeless, to our hungry, to our at-risk youth, and find ways that we can help welfare-to-work moms get back on track in mainstream society.

When all is said and done, this initiative is about protecting this human dignity, this great gift that people have. Whether you believe that's from God or not, certainly you're free to see it as however you wish, but I think as a society we recognize that this great dignity is what unites us.

Jim Towey is Director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.


Jim Towey

Senior Research Fellow