Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Politics: USA: Faith-Based and Community Initiatives attacked in Kuo book, Carlson-Thies answers

An evangelical who worked in the White House in the early days of the Bush Administration, assigned to advancing the idea of faith- and community-based initiatives to meet unmet welfare needs, has just published a super-pious revenge book (just before the November 7 Congressional elections. The evangelical in question, David Kuo, seems to be part of an offensive by anti-Bush evangelicals united over their own differences for the purpose. On the extreme evangelical Left is the super-political Sojourners Magazine editor Jim Wallis, while on the other extreme is Kuo who appeals even to many fundamentalists to turn their backs on politics and stay home on voting day. Center for Public Justice spokesman and former faith-based offficer in the White House, Dr Stanley Carlson-Thies, responds to Kuo's book.

David Kuo's Temptations

by Dr Stanley Carlson-Thies

Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction (Simon & Schuster, slated for release Oct. 16), David Kuo’s story of his time as deputy director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, is being touted as an “insider’s tell-all account,” the real story about the Bush faith-based initiative. In reality, the focus in all the buzz about the book on political machinations and reported slights to evangelical leaders obscures rather than reveals the actual story of the faith-based initiative. My own service in the faith-based office overlapped with Kuo’s, but I saw nothing of the alleged political plotting that seems to have preoccupied him. I can’t confirm reports of efforts to reap political gain from the office’s work. Our focus was pressing the federal government to better engage what the President calls “neighborhood healers”—grassroots and religious organizations that have too often been marginalized. But I’m not surprised that politicians think politically about policy change and eagerly seek to win new supporters.

But to collapse the faith-based initiative into partisan politics is to miss the point and to ignore most of the action. In truth, the faith-based initiative is about enlisting greater public and private support for the smaller and often faith-based organizations that play a vital role in meeting human needs everywhere in our country. I helped to design the faith-based office and plot its initial work—a process that started before Bush’s inauguration and that took weeks, unlike Kuo’s allegations. I later accepted the invitation to be part of the initial staff of the office and stayed fifteen months. I helped establish the faith-based centers in federal departments and carry out a wide-ranging analysis of obstacles put in the way of faith-based and grassroots organizations by federal policies. And I helped start reforms to improve the access of smaller and religious charities to federal funds, win greater private support for these groups, and smooth coordination between them and public programs.

Leaving aside the outreach conferences that Kuo claims were used politically, the initiative has been active along two main lines. One set of gains concerns systemic reforms and clarified standards. We documented in Unlevel Playing Field the actual ways that federal processes have impeded faith-based and smaller organizations seeking support and cooperation. The administration wrote regulations to guide states on how to carry out the Charitable Choice faith-based reforms adopted four times by Congress during the Clinton administration. President Bush issued an Executive Order setting out standards like Charitable Choice for the other federal funds used by federal, state, and local officials to obtain social services. Federal departments have added regulations that ensure fair treatment for faith-based and community-based organization. FEMA has clarified its rules to ease cooperation with churches and religious charities. And, despite taking a great deal of grief for it, the White House has made it clear that, according to federal civil-rights law and court rulings, faith-based organizations as a general rule are entitled to select employees according to religious criteria, just as Senators and Representatives select only adherents of their own party to staff their offices.

In other action, with the support of Congress the administration created an innovative Compassion Capital Fund to provide management and fund-raising training to small and religious charities that often can’t find empathetic trainers; the path-breaking Access to Recovery program that enables drug addicts to chose faith-based and recovery-support services if these will help them better than conventional federally supported treatment; and programs that enlist community groups, both secular and religious, to support marriage, promote fatherhood, help teens choose wisely about sex, mentor children of prisoners, and assist ex-prisoners to reenter society.

Is all this mere politics? Kuo is right to question whether everyone in the White House fully shared the President’s commitment to the faith-based initiative and to point to some abandoned goals, poor implementation, and insufficient spending on some programs. Still, groups that oppose the faith-based initiative for alleged violations of the Constitution, as well as constitutional law scholars busy assessing how the regulatory reforms fit with Supreme Court developments, surely aren’t merely chasing political phantoms. Nonprofits scholars and doctoral students who have dedicated years of analysis to understanding how the array of the government’s social-service partners is changing and how to measure the relative effectiveness of secular and religious providers surely aren’t mere dupes taken in by empty speeches. Democratic governors who have joined Republican governors in establishing their own state-level faith-based offices probably aren’t dancing to Ken Mehlman’s or Karl Rove’s tune, and neither is the US Conference of Mayors, with its Mayors Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. And all those faith-based and grassroots organizations that are finally finding a welcome when they approach government won’t be persuaded by Kuo that nothing really has happened. If David Kuo saw political shenanigans from his perch in the faith-based office, they were just a small, and by far the least important, part of the faith-based initiative. The effort to improve government collaboration with faith-based and small organizations began before the Bush years and will continue after it. It has congressional supporters on both sides of the aisle and it has been endorsed by presidential candidates of both parties. It is integral to America’s long experiment to ensure freedom both to organizations shaped by faith and to people seeking help. Kuo’s glimpse into the politics that is part of governmental action should tempt no one to ignore the vital and hopeful changes that are taking place through the faith-based initiative.

Stanley Carlson-Thies
Director of Social Policy Studies
Center for Public Justice

October 14, 2006


Further Research:

Religion and Social Welfare (Pew Foundation
Public/Private Ventures: Faith-Based and Community Initiatives

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