Faith-Based Future

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Anyone interested in following the fortunes of Son of Faith Based: the Obama Years needs to download “Taking Stock: The Bush Faith-Based Initiative and What Lies Ahead,” a Pew-sponsored report of the Rockefeller Institute of Government’s Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy released this month. Author David J. Wright gives provides a fine (if at times understated) narrative of the Initiative since it was just a twinkle in John Ashcroft’s eye, including the extent of the Bush administration’s embedding of the thing in the federal administrative machinery, largely without congressional warrant. As Wright puts it:

Whatever the future may hold, however, and whether or not one agrees with the policy objective, the methodical character, breadth, depth and scale of the Bush Faith-Based Initiative mark it as a remarkable example of executive action.

Would that the Bushies had devoted half so much attention to, say, post-Katrina or Iraq reconstruction. That said, the actual impact of the Bush initiative–in terms of shifting the weight of social service provision towards faith-based organizations (FBOs)–was negligeable. Those FBOs that saw their share of the pie increase were the big regional and national agencies, not those at the congregational, municipal, or even statewide levels. So maybe, in the end, this was just another example of Bushian ineffectuality.

Apart from the details, what’s striking is how the Initiative came to define the Bush administration as religion–besotted. It proved a boon for secularist groups like the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which saw their membership rolls swell during the Bush years. Probably nothing did more to strengthen the Democratic Party’s hand with non-religious voters.

Congrariwise, the Obama administration has hung its own faith-based shingle from the White House to assure the religious that it feels their faith. And it has studiously avoided taking sides in the single most contentious aspect of the Initiative: allowing FBOs to hire only their own religious kind if they so choose. This tangled question now lies buried deep within the bowels of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, awaiting resolution even as the Initiative rolls on, with different rules applying to different federal programs depending on how the relevant provisions of particular laws and executive orders were written.

For example, the Workforce Investment Act, which comes up for reauthorization this year, was only temporarily extended last time because Congress refused to go along with providing the FBO hiring discrimination exemption that the Bush administration wanted. Perhaps the Obama adminstration will dodge the issue by just plumping for the status quo ante. That won’t be so easy next year, however, when Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF), the major federal program for the poor, itself comes up for renewal. TANF was where the country started down the current faith-based road, and it comes with the FBO hiring exemption. There will be major Democratic opposition to continuing the exemptions. WWOD–What Will Obama Do?