Four years ago, while visiting a small urban charity, President Bush launched the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. He called it “one of the most important initiatives” of his administration.
It was hard evidence of the “compassionate conservatism” that Texas Governor George Bush embraced in his first major policy speech of the Presidential campaign, “It is not enough for conservatives like me to praise [compassionate] efforts. It is not enough to call for volunteerism. Without more support and resources, both private and public, we are asking them to make bricks without straw.” That day a conservative Texas governor promised more than $8 billion during his first year in office to help social service organizations better serve “the least, the last, and the lost.” More than $6 billion was to go for new tax incentives that would generate billions more in private charitable giving. Another $1.7 billion a year would fund faith-based (and non-faith-based) groups caring for drug addicts, at-risk youth, and teen moms. $200 million more would establish a “Compassion Capital Fund” to assist, expand and replicate successful local programs. Legislation would ensure that reported government discrimination against faith-based social service organizations would end. A new White House Faith-Based Office would lead the charge.
It was more than a bunch of promises. It was a new political philosophy of aggressive, government-encouraged (but not controlled) compassion that simultaneously rejected the dollars-equal-compassion equation of the “War on Poverty” mindset and the laissez-faire social policy of many conservatives. It was political philosophy of the heart as much as the head.
This was a dream come true for me. Yes, I actually dream of social policy. But since the early-1990s I’ve been what columnist E.J. Dionne termed a “com-con” or “compassionate conservative.” I worked for William Bennett and John Ashcroft in the mid-1990s on issues like immigration, welfare, and education as they tried to promote a more compassionate Republican approach. While pure com-cons were never terribly powerful in Republican circles, Bush’s endorsement of this progressive conservatism was exciting. And when he became the president, there was every reason to believe he’d be not only pro-life and pro-family, as conservatives tended to be, but also pro-poor, which was daringly radical. After all, there were specific promises he intended to keep.
Sadly, four years later these promises remain unfulfilled in spirit and in fact. In June 2001, the promised tax incentives for charitable giving were stripped at the last minute from the $1.6 trillion tax cut legislation to make room for the estate-tax repeal that overwhelmingly benefited the wealthy. The Compassion Capital Fund has received a cumulative total of $100 million during the past four years. And new programs including those for children of prisoners, at-risk youth, and prisoners reentering society have received a little more than $500 million over four years–or approximately $6.3 billion less than the promised $6.8 billion.
Unfortunately, sometimes even the grandly-announced “new” programs aren’t what they appear. Nowhere is this clearer than in the recently-announced “gang prevention initiative” totaling $50 million a year for three years. The obvious inference is that the money is new spending on an important initiative. Not quite. The money is being taken out of the already meager $100 million request for the Compassion Capital Fund. If granted, it would actually mean a $5 million reduction in the Fund from last year.
This isn’t what was promised.
I served in the White House for two-and-a-half years as a Special Assistant to the president and eventually as Deputy Director of the Faith-Based Initiative. I have deep respect, appreciation, and affection for the president. No one who knows him even a tiny bit doubts the sincerity and compassion of his heart. Likewise, the people around the president are good and caring people. I know this firsthand because I experienced it during a health crisis in my own life when their kindness was evident.
That is why writing this is difficult.
I take solace in realizing that the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives that now sits outside the White House gates has effected change. The Office has used regulations and executive orders to end overt religious discrimination in the government grant-making process. Groups like the Metropolitan Council for Jewish Poverty, once denied an HHS application because it had “Jewish” in its name, are now welcome partners. Tens of thousands of faith-based social service groups, churches, synagogues, mosques, and secular non-profits attended free White House conferences where they were given information needed to navigate the federal grants labyrinth and the rules about what to do with money if they get it. A website now allows all social service groups to sort potential grants by category. These are good things.
But they are a whisper of what was promised. Irony of ironies, it leaves the faith-based initiative specifically, and compassionate conservativism in general, at precisely the place Gov. Bush pledged it would not go; it has done the work of praising and informing but it has not been given “the resources to change lives.” In short, like the hurting charities it is trying to help, the Initiative has been forced to “make bricks without straw.”
The first reaction might be that the recession or 9/11 made it impossible to do the full faith-based initiative. And, to be sure, 9/11 – with the ensuing effort to secure America, hunt down terrorists, and eliminate Saddam Hussein – made the world a very different place from what it was when Gov. Bush made domestic promises during his run for the White House. There are two things worth noting, however; first, the White House didn’t even come close to fulfilling those promises before 9/11. More important, since then it has pushed an ambitious domestic agenda: three huge budgets have been submitted, each of which had billions of dollars for other domestic “priorities” but lacked any new money to pay for “compassion agenda” promises, which are ever more in need of fulfillment. After all, there are now more poor Americans than ever before.
So what happened?
1) On Capitol Hill, Republican indifference couldn’t overcome knee-jerk Democratic opposition.
The moment the president announced the faith-based effort, Democratic opposition was frenzied. Hackneyed church-state scare rhetoric made the rounds; this was “radical” and “dangerous” and merely an “attempt to fund Bob Jones University.” One Democratic African-American congressman came to the White House to back the president but was threatened by influential liberal groups that they would withhold funding if he didn’t denounce the President. The next day he was forced to retract his statement. All of this came despite the fact that former Vice President Al Gore had endorsed virtually identical faith-based measures during the 2000 campaign.
Congressional Republicans matched Democratic hostility with snoring indifference. Sen. Rick Santorum spent endless hours alone lobbying Senate Leadership to give some floor time, any floor time to get a bill to help charities and the poor – even after 9/11 when charities were going out of business because of a decline in giving. He was stiff-armed by his own party.
At the end of the day, both parties played to stereotype — Republicans were indifferent to the poor and the Democrats were allergic to faith.
2) There was minimal senior White House commitment to the faith-based agenda.
Capitol Hill gridlock could have been smashed by minimal West Wing effort. No administration since LBJ’s has had a more successful legislative track record than this one. From tax cuts to Medicare, the White House gets what the White House really wants. It never really wanted the “poor people stuff.”
Not only were the tax items dropped from the 2001 tax relief bill, they were also ignored on numerous occasions when they could have been implemented. In December 2001, for instance, Sen. Daschle approached the Domestic Policy Council with an offer to pass a charity relief bill that contained many of the president’s campaign tax incentive policies plus new money for the widely-popular and faith-based-friendly Social Services Block Grant. The White House legislative affairs office rolled their eyes while others on senior staff yawned. We had to leave the offer on the table.
They could afford to. Who was going to hold them accountable? Drug addicts, alcoholics, poor moms, struggling urban social service organizations, and pastors aren’t quite the NRA. Charities haven’t quite figured out the lobbying thing yet. More significantly, over time it became clearer that the White House didn’t have to expend any political capital for pro-poor legislation. The initiative powerfully appealed to both conservative Christians and urban faith leaders – regardless of how much money was being appropriated.
Conservative Christian donors, faith leaders, and opinion makers grew to see the initiative as an embodiment of the president’s own faith. Democratic opposition was understood as an attack on his personal faith. And since this community’s most powerful leaders – men like James Dobson of Focus on the Family – weren’t anti-poverty leaders, they didn’t care about money. The Faith-Based Office was the cross around the White Houses’ neck showing the president’s own faith orientation. That was sufficient.
At the same time, the White House discovered urban faith leaders had been so neglected for so long that simple attention drew them in. Between 2002 and 2004 more than 15,000 white, Hispanic, and African-American religious and social service leaders attended free White House conferences on how to interact with the federal government. The meetings, held regularly in battleground states, were chock-full of vital information and gave thousands of groups invaluable information about government grants. They were hardly pep rallies for the President. But the conferences sent a resounding political message to all faith-oriented constituencies: President Bush cares about you.
Some liberal leaders have been quoted as saying the administration was looking to “buy minority votes.” Nothing could be further from the truth. There wasn’t enough money around to buy anyone. The conferences actually underscored how difficult it was to even get a grant. But by traveling across the country, giving useful information, and extending faith-based groups an open hand, powerful inroads were made to “non-traditional” supporters. One senior Republican leader walked into an early conference, stared wide-eyed at the room full of people of diverse ethnicities and said to me, “This is what Republicans have been dreaming about for 30 years.” This is more damning of Democrats than anyone else. Where, exactly, has their faith outreach been for the last decade?
3) Liberal antipathy magnified the Initiative’s accomplishments.
Secular liberal advocacy and interest groups attacked every little thing the faith initiative did. When Executive Orders were issued permitting an organization to simply display a cross or a Star of David, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State called it “a crusade to bring about an unprecedented merger of religion and government.” When we helped Boston’s historic Old North Church (of Paul Revere fame) get new windows through a historic preservation grants program at the Department of the Interior, the clamor was the same. The net effect of all the jabbering was the appearance that great progress was being made.
Had these liberal groups or an alliance of charities held the White House accountable for how little was being done — especially compared to what was promised — there is no telling what might have happened…or what might still happen.
I left the White House in December 2003. By that time, I’d grown quite frustrated with White House and Congressional approaches to faith-based issues and I let those in power know it. Virtually everything I’ve written here I told to those above me more than a year ago. I hoped things would change. But frankly I didn’t quite trust my own judgment. I’d survived an intense health crisis but quickly returned to work; I wondered if my grumpiness came from fatigue, stress, or something my doctors secretly did to me while I was sick. I left, and went fishing. Literally. I joined the professional bass fishing tour and spent a chunk of my time on my (loaned) Skeeter boat stalking fish, clearing my head, and pursuing God. I figured that with time, my anger would subside.
I was right. The anger did. The sadness hasn’t.
I’m writing this now because there is a lot of time left. There are more budget supplementals to come for Social Security and Iraq totaling scores of billions. The White House can still do a great deal for the poor. It can add another few billion to insure every American child has health care. It could launch a program to simply eliminate hunger. Groups like America’s Second Harvest have the plan. Bump up the Compassion Capital Fund to $500 million a year and be marveled by change.
Given new budget realities, climates, and conditions it is easy to dismiss these suggestions as naive. But no one ever said faith was easy…or cheap. In 2000, Gov. Bush said, “I know that economic growth is not the solution to every problem. A rising tide lifts many boats, but not all.” He then went on to propose a new approach to those who were still stuck behind. The promises are still there and I am trying to keep the faith.
David Kuo served as Special Assistant to the President and Deputy Director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. He is now a Contributing Editor of Beliefnet.
Copyright 2005. Beliefnet.