Summer 2001, Vol. 4, No. 2

Summer 2001

Quick Links:
Related Articles
The Perils of Polling, Religion in the News, Summer 2000

Faith-Based Ambivalence, Religion in the News, Spring 2001

Ten Issues
to Keep an Eye On
, Religion in the News, Spring 2001

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

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

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

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

Quick Links:
Other articles
in this issue

From the Editor: The Minister, the Rabbi, and the Baccalaureate

Idol Threats

Purging Ourselves of Timothy McVeigh

The Pope Among the Orthodox

The Perils of Polling

The Rael Deal.

Superceding the Jews

Jamming the Jews

Evangelism in a Chilly Climate

Correspondence: Palestinians and Israelis


Faith-based Update: Bipartisan Breakdown
by Dennis R. Hoover

On July 10, the Washington Post set the day’s news agenda with Dana Milbank’s front-page report that the Salvation Army had agreed to support President Bush’s "charitable choice" initiative in exchange for a rule exempting faith-based organizations from state and local policies banning discrimination against gays.

Based on a leaked internal Army document, the story forced the administration into a swift and undignified retreat. By nightfall, the White House had announced not only that there had been no such agreement, but that any regulatory change to that effect was unnecessary and no longer under consideration.

It was the latest pothole in what has been the bumpiest of roads for an initiative that was supposed to be the Bush domestic policy’s answer to motherhood and apple pie.

Initially, news coverage of the President’s initiative tended to give the plan the benefit of the doubt, and the balance of editorial opinion was cautiously positive. Politicians on both sides of the aisle had previously voted in favor of charitable choice rules. And the appointment of University of Pennsylvania professor John DiIulio was evidence of its bipartisan lineage.

"My message to my fellow Democrats is this: I’m not in this administration because I feel like being Republican," DiIulio told Rebecca Carr of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution. "I’m in this administration because like Vice President Gore, like Senator Lieberman and like most Democrats in the House who have voted for this previously, I believe this is the way to get poor people and people in need the services they need."

Moreover, many important religious groups supported the initiative—including some strange bedfellows (see table). The policy’s crossover appeal offered the possibility of a new religious center to replace the "culture war" politics of religious right vs. religious left. Emblem of compassionate conservatism, bipartisanship, and "bringing the country together," it is no wonder that charitable choice was rolled out by the new administration in its second week on the job.

The New Religious Center and the Faith-based Initiative


Mostly supportive

Somewhat supportive


Somewhat opposed

Mostly opposed

Religious traditions and denominations


Mainline Protestants


American Baptist




United Church of Christ







Presbyterian (USA)




United Methodist




White Evangelicals






center-right to progressive



Roman Catholics



Black Protestants



Hispanic Protestants





Reform and Conservative










Nation of Islam










Source: Author’s assessment based on press accounts, denominational statements, and survey data. For another breakdown of religious traditions, see

But by March the honeymoon was over, and the centrist antecedents of charitable choice were quickly forgotten. By the time the White House got around to trying to stop the bleeding in May and June, there was so much partisan blood in the water that the initiative’s survival was very much in doubt.

Trouble started on the right, even before the initiative was introduced as legislation. In early March Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson wrote a USA Today op-ed suggesting that the whole initiative be converted into a tax credit scheme; and Jerry Falwell, the other aging pillar of the religious right, went on record in a interview with his own collection of worries.

This was a big story. Deborah Caldwell and Steven Waldman of cut straight to the heart of the matter: "Bush forced to the surface the anxieties of these conservative leaders. How? By being a strong pluralist." Falwell and Robertson wanted to exclude programs run by religious groups they consider fringe or cultic (such as Scientologists and Hare Krishnas), whereas charitable choice is open to all qualified faith-based organizations (FBOs).

Caldwell and Waldman explored the possibility that a Bush face-off with the Christian Right was to his benefit. It could yield a "Sister Souljah" moment for Bush, Michael Cromartie, director of evangelical studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Institute, told "This is a good chance for Bush to tutor the religious right about what religious freedom means in this country."

Critics from the left quickly joined the fray. When a House Judiciary subcommittee held hearings on the issue in April, chair Steve Chabot (R-OH) noted that all the returning members had previously voted for charitable choice. But Democrats immediately signaled their change of tune. "Religion has never needed government, and it doesn’t need it now," declared Jerry Nadler (D-NY), according to the AP. With opposition to the initiative now full-throated and on the march, journalists gravitated to a theme of "initiative in trouble" (see sidebar), often noting with surprise that it was being attacked from the right as well as the left.

The defections on the right (which ought to have been expected) were nothing compared to what was happening elsewhere on the political spectrum. Through the early spring it was hard to find anyone outside of the African American clergy to say something nice about charitable choice. On March 21 Oklahoma Republican J.C. Watts and Ohio Democrat Tony Hall announced their co-sponsored Community Solutions Act, which attempted to embody all of Bush’s initiative (including his package of tax incentives for charitable giving). They did so with every expectation of quickly picking up more Democratic support. But for months Hall stood alone.

When Bush visited a Catholic hunger center in Cleveland on May 24 to tout his plan, Hall was there, but fellow Ohio representative Stephanie Tubbs Jones turned a cold shoulder, telling the Akron Beacon Journal, "It’s definitely a partisan issue, because George Bush is playing to the conservative Christian Right…It’s payback."

Hall admitted to the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Elizabeth Auster and Susan Ruiz Patto that, "I’ve been surprised. I thought it would be embraced quickly."

Journalists monitoring the initiative’s declining fortunes took note of two racially charged subplots involving Boston’s sharp-tongued Pentecostal pastor Eugene Rivers. DiIulio set the stage for the first in a March 7 address to the National Association of Evangelicals that obliquely blasted Robertson and Falwell: "With all due respect and in good fellowship, predominantly white, ex-urban evangelical and national para-church leaders should be careful not to presume to speak for any persons other than themselves." (The speech prompted Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition to call for DiIulio to be replaced.)

In case the distinction between "white ex-urban" and black urban was lost on some listeners, Rivers quickly made it plain. As Mary Leonard reported in the March 17 Boston Globe, Rivers declared, "The white fundamentalists thought the faith-based office would finance their sectarian programs…and they are infuriated because John DiIulio wants resources to go to people who are poor, black, and brown." Huffed Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, "Like Johnny Cochran with a clerical collar, Rev. Rivers plays the race card."

Then there was the April 25 "faith-based summit" organized by congressional Republicans. Attended by some 400 black religious leaders, the meeting prompted complaints from critics who saw the event as a crude Republican attempt to buy off black opposition. Elizabeth Becker reported in the May 24 New York Times that some Democrats were concerned that "Republicans are using the program to woo black voters, giving money to black inner-city churches in what they see as an increasingly partisan program."

In an interview with’s Holly J. Lebowitz, Rivers responded: "My sense is that they [Republicans] are no more trying to get the support of black people than the Democrats. In other words, are they indifferent to any residual political benefits? Of course not." Rivers told CBS Morning News May 21 that it would be a "stupid thing" for black Democrats to casually dismiss the initiative. "We are simply in a situation where the other white guy won. Now we’ve got to deal with it."

Critics’ allegations about partisan motivations were of much less consequence than the charge that charitable choice amounts to tax-funded religious discrimination in employment. Charitable choice attempts a constitutional balancing act, permitting FBOs to hire by religion while empowering clients to decline services from religious providers. Religious hiring exemptions historically have been more controversial when the form of government assistance is direct (contracts/grants) than when it is, like the GI Bill and analogous programs, indirect (vouchers). Most opponents rallied around the discrimination argument, regardless of the form of aid.

A day before the start of the congressional summit for black leaders, a group called the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination announced that it had collected 850 signatures from religious leaders opposing charitable choice. "This legislation is intended to permit some fundamentalist organization to put a sign on the door saying, ‘No Jews Need Apply,’" surmised Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, according to several reports.

Watts called the hiring issue a red herring—"Planned Parenthood receives federal funds, but do we raise Cain because they don’t hire Alan Keyes?" Nevertheless, on the Senate side, the hiring discrimination issue was the principal reason why charitable choice expansion was not even introduced as legislation.

The Senate point man on the initiative was Republican Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. Santorum wanted (and, after Senate control switched to Democrats, needed) bipartisan backing. So he looked to Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, who initially positioned himself as a supporter, posing with Bush for faith-based photo-ops in January. But it soon became clear that he was interested in charitable choice lite, and wouldn’t support legislation until various issues, especially hiring discrimination, were addressed to his (or his party’s) satisfaction.

Santorum decided to introduce only the tax incentives part of the initiative (popular with virtually everyone), and wait on charitable choice. On the other side of the Capitol, a few days before the full House Judiciary Committee was to take up the Watts-Hall bill, committee chair James Sensenbrenner told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that there were still "legal problems." "It’s basically up to the administration to get it together if they want it passed."

For its part, the White House put it out that the problem started when Congress failed to draft a bill that mirrored existing charitable choice law. "Some White House officials say House conservatives overreached when they were writing the bill, giving too much leeway to churches," reported Mike Allen in the June 25 Washington Post. So the scaling back was done. On June 20, DiIulio told Laura Meckler, who covered the issue closely for the AP, "A number of really excellent modifications have been suggested." By June 26 a deal had been struck with House Republicans, and Judiciary passed it on a party line vote June 28.

Some of the changes simply clarified and beefed up provisions that were always part of charitable choice as originally conceived, such as the requirement that religious activities be optional for service recipients, and the requirement that public funds not be commingled with private. A measure in the original Watts-Hall bill allowing religious groups who are denied funding to sue the government for damages hit the cutting room floor. And on the crucial issue of hiring, new language said FBOs could consider religion in hiring but not "religious practices"—a phrase critics thought too easily justified other kinds of discrimination.

Lieberman continued to play hard to get. "An aide said today that while the senator considered the new changes in the House helpful, he was still withholding support," reported Elizabeth Becker in the June 28 New York Times.

Part of the administration’s problem with rounding up support had to do with inattention. As Allen reported in the June 25 Washington Post, White House officials acknowledged that they had allowed the faith-based initiative to founder while they were preoccupied with passing the tax cut.

But the problem ran deeper. The expansion of charitable choice had been proposed without any increase in public funds. This threatened the bottom line for key religious groups already involved in government-funded social services (e.g., Catholic Charities, Lutheran Family Services, the Salvation Army). The math was not fuzzy: As originally proposed in the House, every dollar granted to a new FBO was, in effect, one dollar less for present grantees.

In his May 20 commencement address at Notre Dame University, Bush implicitly acknowledged the problem. With a nod to Dorothy Day and praise for the tradition of Catholic social teaching, Bush pledged that his next budget request would include increases for housing and drug treatment programs. Journalists covered Bush’s Notre Dame speech as part of a political overture to Catholic voters (which it was), but it was also a significant (and largely unnoticed) development in the charitable choice story.

In late May, with the tax cut bill on the verge of final passage, the religious center made its presence felt again. As the Boston Globe’s Mary Leonard reported, "A religious coalition headed by the group Call to Renewal directly linked the tax plan to the group’s continued support for another key element of Bush’s agenda, his faith-based initiative."

Conservative Republicans had been looking to eliminate refundable tax credits for low income families in order to help make room for rate cuts, but the coalition—which included the Congress of National Black Churches, the United States Catholic Conference, Evangelicals for Social Action, World Vision, and the Christian Community Development Association—lobbied for it to be retained. (It was.)

Even when the Catholic Bishops offered their support for the initiative June 14, Cardinal Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles hastened to lament that Bush’s original proposal to establish a Compassion Capital Fund was not included in the House bill, noting, "More competition over the same or fewer resources is not the answer. Indeed a commitment to increase federal resources…would strengthen the proposal and assist its supporters." Further lamentations followed the House Ways and Means Committee’s evisceration of Bush’s tax incentive proposal for the charitable giving of non-itemizers (reduced to $6.3 billion from the proposed $84 billion over 10 years). "We support it in principle, but the amount is so small it’s almost funny," Sharon Daly of Catholic Charities told the Washington Post.

And then came the Salvation Army flap in July. After the story broke, journalists began preparing to write charitable choice’s obit. The Washington Post’s second-day story concluded that, "Despite the administration’s swift response to the controversy, the president’s effort to fund religious charities—one of his core legislative initiatives—may have suffered lasting damage." "Faith-based Proposal May be Left at Altar," announced the Houston Chronicle.

Such warnings may ultimately prove to be premature. On July 19, the House passed the bill with a smattering of bipartisan support (15 Democratic yeas), though only after hints were given that the hiring issue would be up for further negotiation in conference with the Senate.

With Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle signaling that his body would set the anti-discrimination bar very high, the White House had its work cut out for it.


See companion article, The Perils of Polling

Related Articles:

Faith-Based Ambivalence, Religion in the News, Spring 2001

Ten Issues to Keep an Eye On, Religion in the News, Spring 2001

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

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

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

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