In 1996 Senator John Ashcroft of Missouri crafted and President Bill Clinton signed the first federal law broadening support for faith-based organizations that serve the poor without proselytizing.
During the 2000 presidential campaign, Vice President Al Gore championed faith-based programs. In a speech on May 13, 1999, he extolled how they “face down poverty, drug addiction, domestic violence and homelessness” and weave “a resilient web of life support under the most helpless among us.”
On July 22, 1999, George W. Bush, then governor of Texas, launched his presidential bid by proclaiming that America’s “armies of compassion” do great civic good works but are forced “to make bricks without straw.” On Jan. 29, 2001, as president, he established the first White House office of faith-based initiatives plus five related centers in as many cabinet agencies.
On Jan. 19, 2005, New York’s Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton preached that nobody “is more likely to go out onto a street to save some poor, at-risk child than someone...who sees God at work in the lives of even the most hopeless.” Rather than “have a false division or debate about the role of faith-based institutions, we need to just do it and provide the support that is needed.”
On July 1, 2008, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois laid out ambitious plans to provide that support. His plans echoed through the August 2008 Democratic Convention’s “faith caucuses.” In 2009, during his first months as president, he established a White House office and an advisory council on “Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.”
Now we are 14 years, three presidents and much bipartisan sentiment into faith-based initiatives. What has been accomplished?
Measured by the actual level of government support for community-serving congregations and other religious nonprofits that serve the needy and neglected, the answer is “not much, really.”
From coast to coast, with record numbers of poor people requesting their services and crowding their facilities, the godly republic’s “armies of compassion” are still making bricks without straw.
From Catholic Charities affiliates to street-level “blessing station” shelters, inadequate funding has widened already gaping holes in the faith-based web of life support beneath the least, the last and the lost of our affluent society.
Last year in these pages (2/9/09) , I professed my belief that President Obama, a former Catholic Charities community worker in Chicago, truly wanted “to help the civic saints who go marching in to help people in real need.” I still believe that, and I have only the highest regard for most members of his faith-based office and council.
Still, even allowing for the financial crisis and the health care policy battle, the Obama administration to date has not done nearly enough either to assist community-serving faith-based organizations or to resolve longstanding controversies like those surrounding religious hiring rights.
I say that having just read “Under God,” the Obama council’s March 2010 report. It offers recommendations on faith-based initiatives in relation to domestic and global poverty, climate change, inter-faith cooperation and more, and discusses restructuring the White House faith office and centers.
Fine, but the report is more a discursive academic document, complete with dissenting views, than an actual policy blueprint. Specific policy pledges that Obama made during the campaign seem to have gotten lost in the council’s deliberations.
Diverse faith-based leaders all across the country, including many who strongly support Obama, were puzzled by the report and have been disappointed by what one termed the “all talk, no action office.”
Such disappointment is understandable, but it is too soon to despair. And charges by legacy-minded Bush loyalists, including that the office’s young director, the Rev. Joshua DuBois, functions as a mere political operative, are not entirely fair.
Still, significant policy action to help faith-based programs can and should be taken by or before January 2011. President Obama, it is widely reported, begins each day reflecting on a Scripture verse selected for him by the Rev. DuBois. When it comes to faith-based initiatives, it is time for Mt 7:16: “You shall know them by their fruits.”