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Bad Faith.

Bishop Harold Ray is hopping mad. "There is open conflict between what's being said and what's being done," he fumes. Ray, an African American, is talking about President Bush's program to give churches tax dollars to run social services--specifically, the fact that Bush has just rescinded a campaign pledge that would have increased charitable giving by some $15 billion (much of it to religious organizations like the Redemptive Life Fellowship that Ray runs in West Palm Beach) by allowing a charitable deduction for taxpayers who don't itemize their deductions. The move comes on the heels of another broken promise: In January, Bush pledged to create a $700-million "federal Compassion Capital Fund" to help launch "faith-based" programs in the inner city. This fund, he said, would help churches pursue their "focused and noble mission" of stamping out teen pregnancy, drug addiction, illiteracy, and homelessness. Yet somehow that noble mission fell by the wayside when Bush drew up his budget: It included not a cent for the Compassion Capital Fund.

It may not be surprising to learn that Harold Ray, as a black clergyman, is upset over the president's actions. Only Ray isn't your typical black minister. Two weeks before this outburst, he points out, The Wall Street Journal described him as "the president's strongest ally in the faith-based effort." That the president's strongest ally is suddenly disillusioned with the faith-based plan is a good indication of just how dismal its prospects are and just how broad the disaffection is among black clergy. For Bush, who publicly courted black ministers, it is a stinging rebuke. But it shouldn't be a surprising one. Since the high-profile rollout of his plan in January, many black ministers have quietly come to believe that Bush has abandoned them. And with his faith-based program in jeopardy of dying in Congress, they in turn are now poised to abandon him.

From its inception, Bush's faith-based program met with greater opposition than the administration had expected. Liberals have opposed the privatization of social services and the threat to the church-state divide. Conservatives were concerned about expanding government's reach into religion and feared that churches would become dependent on federal handouts. In February, Bush was dealt his greatest blow when Pat Robertson, head of the Christian Coalition, publicly opposed the plan. Despite these setbacks, Bush did appear to win over one important constituency: black ministers. This was no small feat given the dismal support he received from black voters in the presidential election.

Bush had begun making overtures toward the black clergy well before he took office. In December he hosted a meeting of religious leaders at the First Baptist Church in Austin, Texas, to sketch out his faith-based plan. Although Jewish, Catholic, and Islamic leaders were in attendance, the largest group represented was African-American clergy, whose presence sent an unmistakable message. Those participating included Harold Ray and leaders of black mega-churches like the Reverend Floyd Flake, the Reverend Kirbyjon Caldwell, and Bishop Charles Blake, as well as the Reverend Eugene Rivers, a onetime Gore supporter who quickly became one of Bush's most vociferous backers. The meeting produced the desired effect. Bush acknowledged that he had "a lot of work to do" with black ministers. In return he drew glowing headlines that highlighted his desire to reach out to black religious leaders.

But such coverage vastly overstated the facts. Despite the headlines, Bush excluded officials from the Congress of National Black Churches, which represents the eight major African-American denominations and includes 65,000 churches and 20 million members. Instead he handpicked a few politically sympathetic black ministers and featured them prominently in his public campaign. This distinction was largely missed, to the outrage of mainstream black ministers. "In terms of how many folks the ministers in attendance represented, it's the comparison between tens of thousands versus tens of millions," says Dr. Robert Franklin, president of the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta. It was left to Bishop John Hurst Adams, founder of the church congress, to write a letter to The Washington Post pointing out that "to have a `national' meeting and not to include such representation is an affront to the black church, its leadership and all African Americans."

Bush continued to talk up his faith-based plan, most visibly in a nationally televised address to the U.S. Congress on February 27, and he continued to stress its appeal to urban ministries. The initiative still had critics on both the left and the right, but Bush began to make headway with mainstream black clergy. As presented, his plan pitched programs tailored to inner-city churches. One that particularly resonated with black ministers was an initiative geared toward children of incarcerated parents. Such specificity impressed members of the black clergy because it showed that Bush (or his handlers) grasped the type of problems their churches regularly faced. "It's significant that he chose that program, because it's a tough-to-reach, hard-to-serve population," says Franklin. "Not many average congregations have programs for that population"

Bush's $700-million Compassion Capital Fund and his promise to allow non-itemizers to deduct charitable contributions began to engage some African-American church leaders. Blacks give more per capita to their churches than whites; and because they are poorer on average than whites, most African Americans currently take the standard deduction. Allowing a tax break on top of that for charitable contributions would benefit blacks--and black churches.

"It was a growing point of excitement," Franklin allows. To conservatives like Ray, it was "new money for new social programs" that churches--which heretofore had to compete with public-sector organizations for government funding--would receive simply for running worthy programs. And for Democratic ministers who had gone out on a limb and supported Bush's plan early on, it was confirmation that they had correctly discerned the president's good intentions. "When first touted and talked about, it appeared as though there'd be a large sum of money that was going to be directed to faith-based groups that were successful at doing things the public sector had not," says the Reverend Willie Gable, pastor of the Progressive Baptist Church in New Orleans. On March 19 Bush further bolstered this growing goodwill by finally summoning leaders of the Congress of National Black Churches to the White House for a meeting. It was, says Franklin, "a second opportunity to make a first impression."

But Bush didn't fare much better the second time around. Many clergy who attended were put off by the meeting's lack of depth and the public-relations blitz that followed. "It was a relationship-building meeting and that's all it was," complains another attendee, who was angered by the second round of Bush-courts-black-ministers headlines that popped up the next day. "What can you accomplish in a 40-minute meeting?" Furthermore, Bush declined to address what for many black clergy was the most troubling aspect of his proposal. Title VII, the provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that generally bans discrimination in employment, allows bona fide religious organizations to give preference to members of their own denomination in hiring. "There remains great confusion in the minds of many black church leaders over whether this provision would permit churches to discriminate," says Sullivan Robinson, executive director of the Congress of National Black Churches. "It's particularly troubling to those who were active in the civil rights struggle. It's a short step from discriminating by religion to discriminating by race." Adds another attendee: "The fear is that the [Title VIII exception will erase everything that anybody who ever fought for civil rights won." Nevertheless, Bush raised hopes among many black ministers, who saw the belated meeting as a sign that he now understood the importance of inclusiveness. "They may have gone in with a different intention," Robinson muses,"but they found they really needed some institutional backing."

Ministers were particularly disappointed, however, when the next Republican faith-based gathering, a workshop in late April run by Bishop Ray and Oklahoma Representative J.C. Watts, Jr., turned out to be little more than a political rally. "There again, they were back to the December-style of hand-picking those already sympathetic to the president's and the Republican leadership's vision of a faith-based initiative," says one participant, who came expecting to receive skills training. "It was a rather galling and premature request for a rubber-stamp endorsement." What's more, it was scheduled on the same day as a board meeting of the Congress of National Black Churches. Meanwhile, black ministers encouraged by the initial White House meeting were growing increasingly frustrated that no follow-up dialogue had ensued.

Then, in late May, the Bush administration dropped its bomb: It abandoned the charitable-giving deduction in favor of greater income-tax reductions that were part of the president's general tax package. This was soon followed by the elimination of the Compassion Capital Fund. The move dealt a blow to all supporters of faith-based organizations, but particularly to staunch advocates like Ray, who was not notified ahead of time. Like other Bush boosters, Ray says he was led to believe that the new administration would direct new money to religious organizations in exchange for their providing stepped-up social services. He now faces an unpleasant reality. "The problem is that a lot of the president's initiative was clearly going to be tied to the $14 billion or $15 billion the charitable deduction would have raised," says Ray. "That was the `new money.' I'd like to know how many government programs are being passed along without the money that was promised to accompany them."

Others aren't waiting for an answer. "It's already dead," says the Reverend Calvin Pressley, executive director of the United Methodist City Society in New York City, who has worked with government-funded faith-based programs since the 1960s and supports the concept. "In the abstract, it sounds wonderful--Mom, apple pie, and faith-based initiatives for churches." But what keeps Pressley from supporting Bush's plan is the sense that it's merely an attempt by Republicans to realign the black vote, a conviction that's reinforced by Bush's lofty promises coupled with his failure to provide funding. "Can churches do better than the government with less money? No, they cannot. Can they do better with the same money? Absolutely. But one thing conspicuously absent has been any new money and new programs." This is a common refrain from ministers across the political spectrum from ministers, many of whom predict that Bush's bait-and-switch tactics with the black clergy will cost him dearly.

Bush's failure to galvanize African-American support is all the more dramatic because he inherited a general sympathy in the black church toward the broad outlines of his plan. Though initially skeptical of the charitable-choice clause of the 1996 welfare-reform legislation upon which Bush's faith-based program is modeled, many black ministers were surprised by the positive experience they encountered, especially with the Department of Housing and Urban Development. "There was a slowly evolving perception by many African-American clergy that the federal government was interested in changing the culture of hostility toward working with the faith-based organizations," Franklin says. "There had been a developing relationship and, I think, a high degree of trust on the part of black clergy in President Clinton's and Al Gore's stewardship of the program." What's more, black churches were a natural target of support for Bush's plan: Around 70 percent offer some type of social-outreach program. They were also amenable to the kind of accountability measures that Bush often advocates but didn't include in his faith-based proposal. In my interviews with more than a dozen black ministers and philanthropic-organization leaders, the one common theme expressed--in addition to outrage over funding cuts--was the desire to bring business management and accounting discipline to faith-based organizations, which frequently lack such expertise.

On June 27, Bush once again summoned religious leaders to the White House, in a desperate bid to prop up flagging support for legislation he'd originally hoped the House of Representatives would pass that very day. But this president miscalculated badly by promising the moon to a largely hostile constituency--black churchgoers--and then provoking their anger by breaking his promises. Earlier in June, still angling for black support, Bush had declared that of all the programs he planned to introduce, his faith-based initiative is"the one that more than anything else will, I believe, distinguish my presidency" At least among black voters, there's a strong suspicion that he's exactly right.
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Title Annotation:faith-based charities
Publication:The American Prospect
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 30, 2001
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