Spring 2001, Vol. 4, No. 1

Spring 2001

Related Articles:

"Charitable Choice and the New Religious Center", Religion in the News, Spring 2000

"A Different Spiritual Politics", Religion in the News, Summer 1999

"A New Establishment?", Religion in the News, Fall 1998

"Religion and the Post-Welfare State", Religion in the News, Summer 1998

"Missing the Boat on Charitable Choice", Religion in the News, Summer 1998

Other articles
in this issue:

From the Editor:
Sacred is as Sacred Does

Palestinians and Israelis:
Rites of Return

Palestinians and Israelis:
Oh, Jerusalem!

Ten Issues to Keep an Eye On

What Would Moses Do?:
Debt Relief in the Jubilee Year

Hide, Jesse, Hide

Faith in Justice:
The Ashcroft Fight

Aum Alone

Left Behind at the Box Office

The Voucher Circus

Puffing Exorcism
























































































































Hit Counter

Faith-Based Ambivalence
by Dennis R. Hoover

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"Joe, I’m surrounded by Republicans," John DiIulio quipped to Joe Lieberman at the January 30 media event staged by George W. Bush to publicize the designated theme for Week 2 of his presidency: faith-based social service provision according to the principles of "charitable choice." The policy, promoted as the flesh on the bones of Bush’s compassionate conservatism, had always set its sights on moderate Democrats like Sen. Lieberman and DiIulio, the card-carrying Democrat and social scientist who was named head of the new White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

What was less certain was how the news media would react. Journalism’s powers that be are widely regarded (especially by conservatives) as a secular and liberal bunch strongly inclined to turn thumbs down on policies intended to get more religion in public life. If this is true, charitable choice—a set of rules that make it easier for faith-based service providers to obtain government funds—should have been greeted about as warmly as Bush’s nomination of religious right paladin John Ashcroft to be Attorney General.

Disregarding its own status as the largest circulation daily in the country, the Wall Street Journal was convinced that the "media elite" were dead set against the Bush initiative. In a January 31 editorial strongly endorsing the plan, the Journal sniffed that "as much as a shock as this might seem to the media elite, most Americans regard their churches and mosques and synagogues not as oases of intolerance, but as essential building blocks of America’s civic landscape."

But in fact, the media displayed more ambivalence than shocked opposition. Some howls of protest against the president’s initiative were indeed heard from the left—and from the right too. But, like the public at large, the country’s editorial pages reacted with decidedly mixed feelings.

Among the country’s seven largest dailies—all of which editorialized about Bush’s plan—none rejected the faith-based initiative outright. USA Today and the New York Times leaned toward the critical end of the spectrum, but the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and New York Daily News all issued editorials that mixed caution and optimism in a way that left this writer’s opinion meter pointing to "neutral." Finally, there was the Chicago Tribune, which offered moderate approval.

Circulation size is not, of course, the sole criterion for membership in the "media elite." (The New York Times’ place as America’s "newspaper of record" will not be challenged any time soon by USA Today, regardless of how many more copies the latter sells.) But circulation does talk. According to the Editor & Publisher Yearbook, just 70 of the country’s 1,483 dailies account for over half of all newspaper subscribers.

Most of the papers in this top 70 "elite" produced editorials on the faith-based initiative and, as of this writing, 51 were available for review via online archives like Nexis-Lexis and Newslibrary. Using a rating scale of 1-to-5, in which 1 equals strong disapproval and 5 equals strong approval (see Table below), I found that more than two out of 10 strongly approved of the plan, while less than one in 10 strongly disapproved. The large majority, seven out of 10, were somewhere in between. Computing averages confirms the pattern; among the top 15 papers 13 editorials were available for review, and their average score was 3.15. For all 51, the average was slightly higher: 3.24.

Editorial Reaction to the Bush Plan on FBOs

Editorial Reaction # of Editorials % of Editorials
5 Strong approval 11 22%
4 Moderate approval 10 20%
3 Ambivalent/mixed reaction 14 27%
2 Moderate disapproval 12 24%
1 Strong disapproval 4 8%

Source: Author’s rating of editorials published by 51 different newspapers, January through mid-March, 2001. All rated newspapers are among the 70 highest circulation U.S. dailies.

To be sure, conservative-leaning papers—including the Boston Herald, San Diego Union Tribune, Portland Oregonian, Indianapolis Star, Tampa Tribune, and Omaha World Herald—seemed more likely than others to offer strong editorial approval. The Boston Herald, for instance, was confident that "a nation whose government finds dozens of ways to finance everything from broadcasting organizations to political advocacy in disguise surely can come up with ways to design the new initiatives to withstand constitutional challenge."

The Washington Times, a notably conservative paper outside the top 70, went so far as to strongly endorse not only Bush’s proposal but also William F. Buckley’s recent call for conservatives to simply accept that, although charitable choice falls outside conservative orthodoxy, "certain causes, such as the fight against the federalization of a range of social programs, are lost ones."

But supportive editorials were also to be found in papers that one would not automatically label "conservative." The Philadelphia Inquirer, for instance, strongly endorsed the president’s initiative, singling out for praise DiIulio and former Indianapolis mayor turned White House adviser Steven Goldsmith in an editorial slugged "Bush Couldn’t Have Picked a Better Team." DiIulio, in particular, was seen by the Inquirer and virtually everyone else as having the perfect resumé for the job. He is Catholic (which helps deflect criticism that the program is a sop to evangelical Protestants) and a noted political scientist who has conducted extensive research on faith-based organizations (FBOs), as well as a Democrat who was sharply critical of the 1996 welfare reform act and the Supreme Court decision that halted Florida recounts in the 2000 election. (As a few reporters did note, DiIulio is not completely lacking in detractors. In his work as a criminologist he once predicted a crime wave of fatherless "superpredators," a faulty forecast that critics say only served to legitimate rampant prison-building.)

DiIulio’s deep Philly roots and University of Pennsylvania professorship seemed to add to the Inquirer’s confidence: "He’s someone America can trust to set up the experiment carefully and judge the results fairly." Indeed, southeastern Pennsylvania will be well represented in the new White House office. The number two man under DiIulio will be Lancaster County native and National Fatherhood Initiative founder Don Eberly, a fact noted glowingly in the Lancaster New Era’s editorial.

A fairly diverse array of the big-70 papers—among them, the Chicago Tribune, Providence Journal-Bulletin, St. Paul Pioneer Press, Seattle Times, New York Post, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Dallas Morning News, Chicago Sun-Times, Charlotte Observer—handed down "moderate approval" editorials (rated "4"). The Tribune and Journal-Bulletin both had worries, but suspected that harsh critics are "comfortable suburbanites" insulated from the realities of the disadvantaged. According to the Tribune, the "risk of abuses" by FBOs is real, but "the tut-tutters who have criticized Bush’s plan should look up from their navels. Few of those who have lashed out at this alleged threat to the Constitution live in—or visit, and even drive through—the impoverished, often crime-ridden neighborhoods where good social services can make a difference….The Bush plan needs protections to keep religious groups from turning the delivery of social services into one big revival tent. It also needs rigorous standards of performance. First, though, it needs a chance."

A plurality of editorial boards produced ambivalent responses (rated "3"). Typically, these editorials reviewed a smattering of pros and cons without making a strong statement one way or the other. Some of the painstakingly qualified assessments of Bush’s plan included: It is a "two-edged sword" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer); it is "not entirely a bad thing, although it calls for caution" (Baltimore Sun); it "is as much filled with hope as it is fraught with potential pitfalls" (Detroit Free Press). The Spokane Spokesman Review (not among the top 70) was unique in issuing a split decision: one editorial under the headline, "This Change Sure to be for the Better," together with a dissenting view penned by John Kafentzis "for the editorial board’s dissenters."

About one out of four of the big papers leaned to the negative end of the scale—but without completely rejecting Bush’s initiative (rated "2"). Usually these conceded "good intentions" but saw the perils outnumbering the prospects. Among these was the New York Times’ January 30 editorial, which dwelt mainly on the initiative’s risks but did recommend "setting up pilot programs to test their ideas." After producing an equivocal editorial on January 31, the San Francisco Chronicle took a more decidedly negative line on February 23—a change in position nudged along by, of all people, Pat Robertson. "We often disagree with Robertson’s political views, but we share his reservations and doubts," the Chronicle declared. "The president’s faith-based initiative is a well-intentioned effort to provide services to the needy. But, as Robertson pointed out, the government heads into treacherous territory any time it tries to judge what is and what is not an acceptable religion."

In mid-February it appears to have dawned on Robertson and other religious right leaders that the pluralistic, performance-based system envisioned by the charitable choice law allows FBOs outside the Judeo-Christian family to compete for public funding, a scenario that struck Robertson as opening a "Pandora’s box". (The media were almost unanimous in misreporting the opposition of religious right leaders as "surprising" when in fact charitable choice has never been a true creature of the right.)

Among the papers that issued full-throttle rebukes of the initiative, the February 4 Toledo Blade said the plan "could eventually threaten to make America look like the intolerant governments our forefathers fled." Notably, some papers that offered unqualified thumbs-down assessments were not exactly bastions of liberalism. The Hartford Courant, which endorsed Bush for president, came out soundly against the FBO initiative, as did the Orange County Register, which on February 2 wrote, "Bush should dump this ill-considered proposal and spend some time thinking deeply about the real roots of compassion."

In short, the "media elite"—at least as measured by the unsigned editorials of the country’s largest papers—contradicted some conservatives’ expectations. Although many worries were aired, Bush’s play for the political "center" in this policy area appears to have had something of a honeymoon with editorial boards—albeit, a nervous one.

The pattern of media reaction was a little different among columnists (excluding guest contributors of op-ed pieces). Rating a sample of 31 such columns that appeared in the 70 largest papers suggests a more critical balance of opinion—an average score of 2.61. (Whether this particular sample was fully "representative" in social scientific terms is debatable, so the figures should only be considered suggestive.) The other difference was that these columns appeared to be more polarized. Only one column rated a "3"; 12 were strongly opposed, five moderately opposed, nine moderately in favor, and four strongly in favor.

Some of the most sharply critical reactions came from columnists. For example, the Hartford Courant’s Susan Campbell wrote, "This could be the best thing yet among organizations that persist in being homophobic, misogynistic, or medieval in their treatment of certain folks." In his Religion News Service column (published in the Arizona Republic), Tom Ehrich addressed Bush directly: "The government won’t be taking sides, you say. But are you prepared to referee the unending cat fight that is religion in America?…Religious leaders are best left off the official stage. One needs a capacity for self-doubt and compromise in order to govern a diverse society."

Some critics also attacked from the right. On February 6 E. Thomas McClanahan of the Kansas City Star implored Bush to "Skip the Federal Middleman" and just create new tax credits for charitable giving. The Arizona Republic’s Robert Robb wrote on February 4 that, "In reality, the federal government is an incurable instrument of liberalism. Conservative purposes are advanced by limiting its scope, not tinkering with its delivery methods."

At the same time, there were prominent left-of-center columnists willing to declare their support. At the Washington Post both E. J. Dionne and William Raspberry lent cautious approval.

Naturally enough, guest op-eds tended to be either strongly pro or con, a polarization that in part reflects editors’ love of point-counterpoint face-offs. Yet again, the usual ideological and partisan stereotypes were somewhat scrambled.

There was Michael Tanner of the libertarian Cato Institute beseeching the president in the February 6 Washington Times: "[P]rivate charity is a good idea. But please don’t make a federal program out of it." And then there was David Cole, legal affairs correspondent for The Nation, who wrote in the January 31 New York Times that "as a card-carrying liberal, I suggest that we should not be so quick to attack. Faith-based social services are social services, after all….The Constitution does not require strict separation of church and state, because in a modern society in which virtually everyone benefits from some form of government support, that would amount to discrimination against religion."

Thus, "reaction mixed" was the bottom line for the first round of media commentary. As it happened, this was also the budget line for many local reaction stories filed by reporters. For example, the Vancouver, Washington Columbian’s front-page story on February 3 announced, "Views Mixed on Bush Plan." The views from Memphis looked similar, where a January 31 Commercial Appeal headline read, "Reaction Mixed to ‘Faith-Based’ Plan From Bush." And from Bush’s home state of Texas the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported, "Faith-Based Groups Welcome Bush Plan, With Questions." In short, the ambivalence of the media elite mirrored most local leaders of FBOs and congregations.

By February 4 the Boston Globe’s Richard Higgins would conclude that, notwithstanding all the heated rhetoric from activists on opposite ends of the spectrum, "in the diverse, vast middle of America’s religious spectrum, a wait-and-see attitude was far more common." Still, as a number of journalists noted, some religious anti-poverty activists—in particular, those associated with the Call to Renewal movement founded by liberal evangelical Jim Wallis—have worked hard to position themselves in the "middle" of this debate, not so as to wait and see but to drive the charitable choice cause forward. "One could say that George W. Bush is an oil and gas man from Texas," Wallis told Houston Chronicle religion writer Tara Dooley. "[T]hat may turn out to be true. But the faith-based initiative is like a wild card in his poker hand…It is the thing that could surprise most people."

See companion sidebar, Ten Issues to Keep an Eye On

Related Articles:

"Charitable Choice and the New Religious Center", Religion in the News, Spring 2000

"A Different Spiritual Politics", Religion in the News, Summer 1999

"A New Establishment?", Religion in the News, Fall 1998

"Religion and the Post-Welfare State", Religion in the News, Summer 1998

"Missing the Boat on Charitable Choice", Religion in the News, Summer 1998