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Salvation Is No Solution to America’s Social Problems

The Supreme Court was set to hear opening arguments this past Wednesday in a case brought by the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The suit charges that conferences held in the White House to promote President Bush’s faith-based initiative were, in fact, Christian revival meetings.

I can attest to the fact. I have worked closely with some of the Christian leaders targeted by the architects of Bush’s faith-based initiative, and I am convinced that this president still believes that atheists, Jews and Ted Haggard notwithstanding, America is still one nation under Jesus.

The faith based-initiative was Bush’s first unsuccessful war. Battling the ravages of poverty in Christ-centered ways, his plan was to redistribute savings from cuts in existing programs to evangelical Christian churches and heal people one soul at a time.

The plan, however, posed a quandary for administration officials. Because Jews and some other denominations do not address poverty by saving souls, it was hard to find a way to include these groups — if for no reason other than to provide cover for the faith-based initiative’s real agenda.

That agenda was brought into sharp focus by the administration’s reaction to two high-profile events: the medical condition of one comatose woman, and the damage caused by a category-five hurricane. It took five days for Bush to visit New Orleans, where thousands of poor Americans were trapped without food, water or adequate sanitation. By contrast, it took him less than 24 hours’ time to return to Washington to sign legislation blocking the removal of Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube.

Bush’s well-crafted measures were intended to dismantle the welfare state in the name of eradicating poverty. Attempts to buy new friends within the African American and Jewish communities convinced some in those communities that this policy was sound. The American Jewish community’s most prominent representative, Senator Joseph Lieberman, was among those lulled by the administration’s tactics, which included a 2003 allocation to the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty.

The problem with these faith-based allocations was not just that those making them knew next to nothing about the network of local social-service systems around the country. The real problem was that they just did not care.

Had the Bush administration reached out to that network, it could have made a significant dent in poverty and in the social problems that directly result from it. Nationwide, there are about 350,000 congregations, and thousands more sectarian service organizations, that serve as limited but essential partners in providing services that effectively address poverty.

Clergy in those congregations, in tandem with the experienced leaders of thousands of United Ways, Lutheran social services, Catholic charities and Jewish family services, would have readily partnered with anyone — including the architects of Bush’s faith-based initiative — able to help create policies that provided more effective ways of eradicating poverty in their communities.

I speak from experience. I am a Jew in the Bible Belt, where the Southern Baptist Convention officially proclaims Jews as targets for conversion, and where the local paper used to advertise the “Christian Yellow Pages.” My religion, though, didn’t much matter to the Rev. Odell Cleveland of Mount Zion Baptist Church here in Greensboro, N.C.

He asked me to lend a hand at Mount Zion because I possessed a skill set that could help turn his increasingly overwhelmed emergency-assistance ministry into a thriving work force-development agency. So lend a hand I did — and in the process I got a perspective on Bush’s faith-based initiative far different from the one being peddled to the general public.

Cleveland showed me how the president was courting African American clergy members. In 2002, David Barton, founder of the evangelical Christian organization WallBuilders, sent Cleveland an invitation to a “Pastor’s Briefing” at the White House and on Capitol Hill. The agenda included a “Spiritual Heritage Tour,” as well as meetings with such right-wing Christian politicians as Rep. Tom DeLay and Senator Sam Brownback. In the closing sentence of the invitation, Barton neatly captured the spirit of the faith-based initiative: “In prayer that our Government will once again be upon His Shoulders, and that we will again become one nation under God.”

Cleveland balks at the idea that salvation is the solution to social problems. “Black people,” he said, “have plenty of religion. They need skills!” His view, however, is not shared by everyone in the faith-based community.

The Rev. John Castellani is the former head of Teen Challenge, a Christ-centered drug rehabilitation program that has more than 100 outposts across the country and touts the “Jesus Factor” as the key to its success. “When a person finds a relationship with God,” Teen Challenge teaches, “everything changes.”

God, to hear Castellani tell it, is a one-size-fits-all deity. During a 2001 House government reform committee hearing exploring the effectiveness of faith-based programs, Republican Rep. Mark Souder of Indiana asked whether Teen Challenge accepts non-Christian clients. Castellani replied that some of the Jews who finish the program become “completed Jews.” The term “completed Jews,” for those unfamiliar with it, was coined by the right-wing evangelical community to describe Jews who convert to Christianity.

Marvin Olasky, the father of compassionate conservatism and himself a “completed Jew,” has praised Teen Challenge and programs like it. In 2004, he said that studies on the program had shown a high rate of success. The studies to which Olasky refers, however, do not meet the established standards required of a reputable social science study. The exception was a dissertation by a Northwestern University doctoral student who was unable to substantiate Teen Challenge’s claims.

Such inconvenient facts, however, have effectively been deemed irrelevant by the administration’s need to create the perception that shifting public money to private programs is the only way to address substance abuse, sexually transmitted diseases and poverty.

By 2005, $100 million of federal money went to Access to Recovery, a voucher program allowing drug users to choose such places as Teen Challenge for services. The 2007 budget requests $98 million for the same program. This shift of discretionary block-grant money is a clear illustration of the Bush administration’s hop, skip and jump around the Establishment Clause — and is far from the only such instance.

Given the shaky constitutional ground on which their New Testament-inspired efforts have been based, the engineers of the faith-based initiative have gone to great linguistic lengths to veil their intentions. Jewish critics who have gotten too close to exposing them have been singled out, though not by name.

At a 2004 conference on religion and welfare, Jim Towey, a former director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, blamed what he called “secular extremists” for a lawsuit brought against AmeriCorps. The secular extremists in question? Staff members at the American Jewish Congress.

Things have not changed in the three years since. Bush’s 2007 budget delivers large cuts to, and in some cases outright elimination of, government services for children, the elderly, the disabled and the poor. Meanwhile, funding for faith-based social services and programs high on the right-wing evangelical agenda, such as abstinence education, has at worst been marginally cut. In many cases, it has not been cut at all.

The 2007 budget is only the latest evidence that President Bush and his fellow compassionate conservatives have no desire to fight and win a real war on poverty. Their scheme is aimed at winning souls, paying off their right-wing evangelical base and, if they’re lucky, chipping away at the black and Jewish vote.

Bob Wineburg, a professor of social work at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, is the author of “Faith-Based Inefficiency: The Follies of Bush’s Initiatives” (Greenwood Press).

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