Religious organizations have always been a part of the voluntary sector. Religious congregations are natural communities of mutual aid and, beyond that, have acted as providers of mission-oriented charity and organizers of social justice work. Although there have always been worries about the potential for embedded prosyletization in such situations, religious organizations have a unique capacity to mobilize resources through calling people to a lived morality. Their work reflects the soul of our sector.

The following article by Rick Cohen does not address the role of religious organizations in the nonprofit sector, but rather illuminates the deceptions and dangers that sometimes occur when politics and nonprofits mix for political ends. The result is potentially a threat to the integrity of our sector, and to an honest debate about social policies on which the work of nonprofits depends. This article is the first in what we hope will be an ongoing series of investigative articles around the nonprofit sector. We look forward to your feedback. Write to us at [email protected]

Catastrophic events lead some people to turn to religion for explanations, solace, and solutions. The August 29th landfall of Hurricane Katrina, a cataclysm resulting in the deaths of over 1,400 people along the Gulf Coast and causing more than $75 billion in damages, the costliest hurricane in American history and the deadliest since 1928,1 moved religious and political leaders alike to plumb the catastrophe for spiritual lessons.

Politicians weren’t shy about reaching conclusions about the theological underpinnings of the natural disaster. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin decided that God was upset with America because of its invasion of Iraq under false pretenses and because of “black America . . . not taking care of ourselves.”2 According to Louisiana Congressman Richard Baker, God pays attention to U.S. domestic policy, concluding that God “cleaned up” New Orleans’ public housing stock, succeeding where the city, state, and federal governments had failed.3 The chair of the New Orleans city council picked up on that theme and suggested that God had been trying to cleanse the city as he had previously done a few years back with Sodom and Gomorrah.4

Among religious leaders, Pat Robertson of the Christian Broadcasting Network said God took out His or Her wrath on New Orleans because of abortion.5 Former Nixon Administration official, now Christian commentator, Charles Colson said it was God trying to remind us about the challenge of dealing with terrorism.6 Nationally known Fred Phelps of Topeka’s Westboro Baptist Church is among many who apparently know that God punished New Orleans for the city’s welcoming attitude toward gays and lesbians at the annual Southern Decadence Party gay pride celebration.7 Evangelist Franklin Graham, Billy’s scion, concluded that God punished New Orleans for its “black spiritual cloud,” including Satan worship, orgies, drugs, alcohol, and also, of course, “sexual perversion”.8 On the Trinity Broadcasting Network, Hal Lindsey concluded that Katrina was God’s pronouncement that we were headed into the final days as prophesied in the Bible.9

But maybe they all got it wrong. One could conclude that a by-product of Hurricane Katrina was a shot in the arm for a program that many religious leaders and many of the political leaders all verbally support, the Bush Administration’s Faith-Based Initiative.

Organizations affiliated with Robertson and Graham have been direct and lucrative beneficiaries of the Faith-Based Initiative, but some of the momentum of the program had stalled in the wake of criticisms from the Initiative’s own staff and lackluster leadership from the Bush Administration itself. For many observers, the Bush Administration’s early “can do” approach emphasizing managerial competence in the delivery of federal programs faltered badly in many areas, culminating in the continuing abysmal performance of Bush’s appointees at the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA). The faith-based initiative seemed to head down the same path, failing to achieve President Bush’s own ambitions for the effort. Perhaps the natural disasters of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma may have added a pulse to a key Administration program that showed all the energy of a patient on life support.

The Administration’s faith-based initiative has generated energetic public debate on lots of issues since its inception in 2001: whether the program would cross the line between church and state; whether federal money would end up in the hands of organizations that discriminated in their decisions on whom to hire and whom to serve; whether religious providers would take advantage of their federal contracts to engage in religious proselytizing; whether faith-based programs do or don’t deliver certain programs more effectively than their secular counterparts.

But what actually happened in the course of implementing the President’s faith-based program itself? What resulted in terms of shifts in funding? And did the faith-based initiative ever really deliver on its promise to its advocates in the religious community, in Congress, and in the Oval Office?

The answer may be that it fell way short, leaving even the apostles of expanded faith-based funding with feelings of disappointment and abandonment. But the federal government’s lackluster response to Katrina may be the boost the faith-based community has been looking for to reanimate the Administration’s initiative and in the process move supportive legislation on Capitol Hill.

Much has been written about the origins of the Administration’s faith-based initiative, particularly the debates concerning the separation of church and state and the potential that faith-based service providers might use federal contracts, that is, public funds, to inadvertently or intentionally promote their religious beliefs to program clients. Suffice to say that, regardless of the disputable successes of the program as implemented, President Bush came to the White House as a believer in the power of religion in his life and in the capacity of faith-based organizations to help people in need. His experience as governor of Texas, influenced strongly by Marvin Olasky, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, cemented his conviction that the faith-based sector had much to offer federal program delivery but had been inadequately mobilized and used.

However, the situation was not as dismal as the Bush electoral campaign implied. Much had been done in the years prior to Bush’s accession to pave the way for increased roles for faith-based providers. Under President Clinton, welfare reform included a provision in the 1996 statute permitting “charitable choice” in the delivery of related social services,10 meaning that faith-based organizations would not have to strip themselves of religious symbols and mission statements or create separate secular 501(c)(3) organizations in order to qualify. More to the point, many of the nation’s largest multi-service faith-based organizations had been among the top recipients of government grants and contracts for the delivery of multiple services. Catholic Charities, Jewish Family Services, Lutheran Social Services, and the Salvation Army have long been successful applicants for federal grants and contracts well into the hundreds of millions of dollars annually. One report suggests that three-fourths of Catholic Charities’ revenues were from federal contracts prior to the inception of the Bush program,11 and even the eventual director of the Faith-Based office, John DiIulio, counted the take of these large providers in the tens of billions long before the prospect of a Bush victory over Gore.12

Some federal programs such as HUD’s longstanding senior citizen housing construction program (Section 202) have routinely dispersed roughly half their funds to faith-based providers such as Volunteers of America, and other HUD subsidies have gone to faith-missioned groups like Habitat for Humanity without problem. In the housing and community development field, the notion that faith-based organizations were somehow disadvantaged would be difficult to believe. For years, some of the nation’s top-performing and most respected Community Development Corporations, successfully tapping into state and federal subsidies for their projects, included Newark’s New Communities Corporation (established by Monsignor William Linder at St. Rose of Lima church in Newark’s Central Ward), Abyssinian Development Corporation (Rev. Calvin Butts’s creation at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem), the Nehemiah Project of East Brooklyn Churches which spawned Nehemiah replications around the nation, and numerous others.13

The key to the Administration’s faith-based strategy might not have been opening up federal programs to faith-based organizations per se, but making it easier to get money into the programs of the smaller, more fundamentally religious, frequently evangelical religious organizations that unlike Catholic Charities or Lutheran Social Services were thought to have limited or no access to federal grants due to obstacles facing faith-based grant and contract applicants. Despite their religious origins, many of the larger service providers had established well-run, generally secularized service delivery models, and they could teach federal agencies a thing or two—and frequently did—about the interpretation of OMB circulars and agency regulations. But how could the federal government attract the pervasively religious providers, the kinds of groups that would affiliate with the likes of Rev. Phelps’ Westboro church and Rev. Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse relief organization, the kinds of groups not likely to easily shed their proselytizing or their core convictions that faith itself constituted a component of service and recovery for people and families in need?

To justify its plans, early in the Bush Administration, the White House released a report detailing the purported problems of faith-based service providers in accessing and delivering federally funded services. The report, “Unlevel Playing Field: Barriers to Participation by Faith-Based and Community Organizations in Federal Social Service Programs” summarized the findings of five federal departments (HHS, HUD, Education, Labor, and Justice) on participation by faith-based groups. The report reached the following conclusions based on the data collection of the five departments’ faith-based centers (established by the President’s Executive Order 13198):14

  • Small faith-based and secular groups receive little federal support compared to the size and scope of the services they provide;
  • Federal social service programs exhibit widespread bias against faith- and community-based organizations;
  • Regulations create unnecessary burdens on these groups;
  • Federal administrators have “almost entirely ignored” the existing federal “charitable choice” provisions in federal statutes;
  • Notwithstanding all of these hurdles, some faith-based and community-based groups receive and administer federal funds;
  • Few federal programs have undergone evaluations that would guarantee that they yield “positive results in the lives of people who need help;”
  • The Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) enacted in 1993 to encourage performance-based management of federal programs has had “little discernible impact.”

The report provided a remarkable analysis and set of conclusions reached with virtually no data. Somehow, the review of the prospects of faith-based groups in the federal social service arena veered into conclusions on the inadequate performance of federal programs overall, the burdensome obligations of the federal “red tape” bugaboo, and even an ad hominem attack on the outcomes-focused GPRA.

Much of the report read not as a critique of federal treatment of faith-based organizations, but federal treatment of small social service organizations unable to compete with the economies of scale of the large service providers. Implicitly, the White House had acknowledged that the large, successful, and religious service providers such as Catholic Charities, the Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity, and legions more had worked the federal system well for many decades and had no particular barriers to overcome. But the smaller, community-focused, frequently local church-based or evangelical groups with minimal connection to federal grants and contracts, these were the groups facing insuperable competitive barriers.

But even these smaller faith-based groups might have found it difficult to warm up to the report’s findings. Only one of the five agencies—the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)—actually issued a notice for

public comments about the obstacles faith- and community-based groups faced, extending the deadline for comments once because of the purported “high degree of interest” and response to the first notice. The reality is that HUD got 130 comments in response to the first notice, and 15 additional to the second.15

Of the 145 comments to HUD, only 23 organizations reported obstacles based on religion in their attempts to access HUD programs, basically when, as one respondent noted, “ministry and Bible study (were) integral elements” of their treatment programs. But the President’s faith-based initiative would not have overcome that obstacle, because in the program, federal funding provided to pervasively religious service providers could not be used for religious programming or content. On the other side, 35 organizations said that there were no significant obstacles, that the program requirements were generally appropriate, or that they opposed the Administration’s faith-based initiative.

What was the majority opinion? The biggest complaint of the 81 respondents not citing religious discrimination or giving blanket approval was this: inadequate levels of federal funding. This was hardly the cause that the Administration was likely to take up, but it was clearly the flaw, whatever one’s opinion, in the Administration’s faith-based effort. Despite wanting to bring in more religious nonprofits into the federal social service delivery arena, the Administration was unlikely to provide substantial funding to make that happen given a significant and persistent federal budget deficit situation—unless the White House was willing to retract its massive tax cuts.

There is, however, an unleveled playing field that is easily documented: the gap between the nation’s needs for human services and public investment and the inadequate levels of available federal funding. The Unlevel Playing Field unintentionally demonstrated one basic mismatch—the gap between paltry empirical data and the White House’s overreaching conclusions,16 a gap that would later come back to haunt the White House in the comments of apostates from the Faith-Based office.

Nonetheless, the Administration immediately created the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, appointing an academic, John DiIulio, to run the program. Through executive orders, President Bush eventually established faith-based centers in 10 federal departments or agencies, ranging from Health and Human Services to the Small Business Administration. For funding, the implicit conclusion of the Unlevel Playing Field report was borne out. There was little new money made available, initially a $30 million Compassion Capital grant fund at the Department of Health and Human Services, augmented with somewhat larger amounts in subsequent fiscal years, but hardly an infusion of capital to respond to the need of faith-based and secular providers alike for more federal grant dollars to address social needs. Agencies were faced with the more difficult proposition of either shifting resources away from current, proven providers toward faith-based organizations or getting secular providers to shift their emphases to incorporate more of the faith-based paradigm in their programs.

A program that might have been more bully pulpit than funding reservoir is difficult to manage and sell, and so it appeared to DiIulio. After seven months on the job, he was gone, having run afoul of the White House and critics on the left and right. Some thought he was pitching the program too much toward black church leaders, and his departure was described by Boston’s Gene Rivers in tough terms: “The message in Professor DiIulio’s departure is that the black and the poor in the inner cities can go to hell. It sends a signal that the faith-based office will just be a financial watering hole for the right-wing white evangelists.”17 On the other side, Olasky welcomed DiIulio’s departure, noting that DiIulio’s students would appreciate having the professor back in the classroom, and the Hudson Institute’s Michael Horowitz underscored DiIulio’s resignation by calling him “the most strategically disastrous appointee to a senior government position in the 20-plus years I’ve been in Washington . . .[who] has taken what could have been a triumphant issue and marched it smack into quicksand.”18

DiIulio had wandered off the Bush Administration’s reservation by commenting critically about the impact of tax cuts and making other Democratic-sounding statements, revealing that the registered Democrat heading the faith-based program might have been a one-time Democrat for a reason. It is easy to earn Bush strategist Karl Rove’s displeasure when you get quoted in a New York Times editorial describing yourself as “the skunk at the picnic” for diverging with the White House’s plan to repeal the estate tax (DiIulio said it should be modified, but not eliminated).19 His days were quickly numbered. After leaving, DiIulio described his distaste for Rove’s political influence, calling the Bush Administration the “reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis,”20 but he rapidly retreated from his own comments, pronounced his “love” for President Bush, and generally stayed out of the fray.

The blockbuster for the Administration’s program was not DiIulio’s departure, but David Kuo’s public denunciation of the program. The deputy director of the office and reportedly the author of the “charitable choice” legislation under then Senator, later Attorney General John Ashcroft, Kuo clearly blindsided the Administration with a widely circulated op-ed21 followed by Congressional testimony indicating that the Administration had lost its way. While acknowledging that the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives had introduced a bunch of faith-based groups to the process of learning about government grants and contracts and had embedded faith-based offices in most federal agencies, Kuo unleashed a devastating critique, primarily that the President’s promise of billions in new charitable and government spending for his compassionate concerns had been answered with a paltry support. He called for bolstered Congressional oversight of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, suggesting very clearly that the accuracy and reliability of reports of funding going to faith-based groups might be less than stellar. And he suggested that the Republican support for faith-based issues had become too focused on same-sex marriage and other social issues to the detriment of the faith-based initiative’s original commitment to addressing poverty.22

Kuo’s critique unleashed a torrent of pent up frustration from Bush supporters and religious leaders. New Community Church founder Rev. Jim Dickerson in Washington, DC, denounced the faith-based program as “just a smokescreen to recruit blacks and minorities into the Republican Party by bribing them with money and access to power—even while covering up cuts in vital social programs and giving big tax cuts to the wealthy.”23

What the Bush Administration failed to deliver on its bottom line was the dough for the faith-based groups lined up at the trough. The Administration cut taxes for the wealthy and for corporations and provided subsidies for pharmaceutical companies, big agri-business, and much more, but failed its constituency of faith-based groups. In essence, in the Kuo critique, the Bush Administration tried to buy the loyalty of faith-based service providers on the cheap, offering a lot of rhetoric, leaning heavily on the social issues that motivate the religious right, but showing little commitment to putting new dollars into programs that would benefit faith-based groups, potentially “turn[ing] thousands of charities into federal clients.”24

Kuo eventually turned on the White House for even fudging the numbers behind the Faith-Based Initiative. In early 2005, the White House released a tally of names of purportedly

faith-based organizations that had received

8.1 percent of the available funding from five federal agencies (HHS, HUD, Justice, Labor, and Education) in Fiscal Year 2003,25 a proportion that rose to 9.8 percent in Fiscal Year 2004.26 In the White House report literally dozens of the grantees listed were public agencies or otherwise questionable as faith-based groups.

White House staff seemingly listed many organizations simply because of their names (e.g, “Christian” in the YW and YM agencies) as sufficient evidence that these were faith-based grants. Even among the somewhat verifiable faith-based organizations themselves, the AP reporters concluded that many of the organizations on the list had received federal money for decades, including for example, 93 percent of faith-based groups listed by HUD. This wasn’t evidence of the faith-based program’s success. To the contrary, it showed that the White House’s faith-based leaders could cook the program performance books as well as any other agency trying to justify its place in the federal budget. Consistent with Kuo’s eviscerating comments before various Congressional committees, the Administration’s faith-based initiative was stronger on rhetoric than delivery.

The failures of the federal, state, and local government responses to Hurricane Katrina, particularly in New Orleans, stand in stark relief to the overwhelming positive press given to faith-based nonprofits:

If it hadn’t been for the churches, I think people here would have started to die of thirst.

— from someone in Waveland, Mississippi.27

Long after the Red Cross pulls out and FEMA pulls out, the churches are still going to be there.

—The promotional comment of Rev. Rick Warren, the populist faith-based author of The Purpose-Driven Life.28

I have marveled at the miracles that have been done—where different faith traditions have reached out with compassion to help those in desperate need.

—from the director of the Bush Administration’s faith-based office during one of his online “Ask the White House” Internet chats.29 (He also added in another speech, “Hurricane Katrina showed us faith-based organizations doing superb work and being way ahead of government.”30

Obviously, Katrina will focus attention on the role of the faith-based community, because they have so magnificently stepped up to the plate.

—according to Rabbi David Saperstein, a Washington-based leader of Reform Judaism.31

As we saw in the evacuation, the caring and guidance expressed through religious institutions and faith-based organizations put a face, and a tenderness, on help extended that no government can.

—by an editorial page editor of the

Atlanta Journal Constitution.32

Lauding the faith-based providers became nearly a catechism of public’s analysis of the Katrina response. The Red Cross attracted a lion’s share of criticism of its performance, in part because it was seen as absorbing as much as three-quarters of charitable donations in the catastrophe. The Salvation Army, however, which took second place in the donations race, seems to have scarcely earned a sideways glance. The culmination of the faith-based success was the distribution of $20 million of the first $90 million from the Bush-Clinton Katrina fund to a ministers’ fund “to address the needs of their communities and congregations,”33 virtually a capsule articulation of the faith-based program theory. The Bush-Clinton team made it clear that promoting faith-based providers would be a centerpiece of its efforts going forward. As the two former presidents put it, the “$20 million grant will support a ministerial partnership with local and regional faith-based organizations, which were instrumental in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina but now require our help to continue providing critical services to their communities.”34

Faith-based leaders quickly saw opportunities for connecting the positive image of their response to the Gulf Coast disaster with a revival of the President’s faith-based compassion. Faith-based program director Jim Towey acknowledged that he was in frequent contact with church leaders in the aftermath of the federal government’s FEMA debacle, hearing no shortage of criticisms of whether the Bush Administration would follow through with support. Boston’s Rev. Eugene Rivers, whose anti-violence work has been frequently touted as a success story of faith-based service, laid out the challenge in a way that both the White House and its Congressional supporters might hear:

The strategic question is whether or not the White House senior staff are smart enough to seize this historic and strategic opportunity. If they fail to practice the compassionate conservatism that they have preached, history may not be kind to them.35

Gene Rivers was hardly the only faith-based leader calling for a revival of the federal government’s commitment. At the national and local levels, religious leaders joined the appeal for a faith-based program revival. From a United Methodist Church leader in Alabama, “We have seen a paradigm shift. Before in America, since the 1930s or 40s, we’ve thought the government was going to do it. Now we realize the church is going to have to do it.”36 As popular religion author Rev. Warren concluded, “If the president wants to really put his money where his mouth is on the faith-based initiative, now is the time,”’ and best-selling author Rev. T.D. Jakes, sometimes called the “black Billy Graham,” pronounced at a presidential prayer meeting for Hurricane Katrina victims that more federal money should go directly to religious organizations.37

President Bush quickly got the message, convening the likes of representatives of the Salvation Army, the Southern Baptist Convention, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and Catholic Charities and faith-based providers, and an odd secular nonprofit, to repair the post-Katrina image of blended insouciance and incompetence. The President’s message coming out of the September 6th White House meeting was unambiguous: “Support Katrina Victims Through Faith-Based Groups.”38

When David Kuo lambasted White House and Capitol Hill Republicans for their faith-based apostasy, he specifically exempted Pennsylvania’s Rick Santorum, observing that Santorum’s “compassion is genuine.”39 Capitol Hill’s reigning champion of the faith-based initiative, especially after Oklahoma’s J.C. Watts left the lower chamber, Senator Rick Santorum must wonder what went awry. Originally just a very conservative Senate member of Republican revolution of 1994, holding the third highest position in the Republican Senate leadership, Santorum fashioned himself as the champion of the nonprofit sector in general and the faith-based community in particular. But as he faces the end of his second term, he lags behind his Democratic opponent by sizable double-digit percentages in his campaign for reelection.

At the Senate Finance Committee, Santorum is the anti-regulatory counterpoint to his Iowa colleague and committee chair, Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, vocally opposing legislation that would toughen up the rules that nonprofits have to live up to. Playing to sycophantic nonprofit leaders, Santorum became the spokesperson for the notion that all you had to do was enforce the law, writing letters to his colleagues on behalf of an alliance of anti-regulation nonprofits and foundations. But the Committee went ahead with legislation containing some modest regulatory boosts, albeit hardly robust and without money for the IRS or attorneys-general to do their oversight and enforcement jobs.40

On the faith-based front, Santorum’s personal beliefs propelled him into serving as the Administration’s primary faith-based sponsor, but until now, he hadn’t had much success in translating his agenda into legislation. Each year, he has pitched his favorable charitable giving incentive, the non-itemizer charitable tax deduction, meant to generate new charitable giving for religious organizations as much as for nonprofits. However, the explicitly faith-oriented parts had generally been stripped from bills in order to attract Democratic (and some Republican) support, and the non-itemizer deduction has stalled between the two chambers of Congress despite zealous advocacy from mainstream nonprofit leaders.

Watching the exodus of Bush appointees from the faith-based program followed by their critical editorials in mainstream, nonprofit, and religious publications, Pennsylvania’s junior senator could not have been heartened with the Administration’s program and its legislative companion track. To his credit, he even got his defeated opponent, Harris Wofford, whom Santorum called a “liar” in the campaign, to chair a working group of religious and secular leaders to issue recommendations to make the faith-based program work.41

But the faith-based initiative largely scraped along until recently, when the top performer