There are a number of items which critics of President Bush's "Faith Based and Community Initiatives" program usually bring up, namely the heady Church v. State dilemma inherent to the program itself. Second is the perception that taxpayers could be funding proselytizing, religious discrimination, and in this day when the Republican Party has wrapped itself in a cloak of religiosity, that the program is a form of government kick-back for Religious Right support. Third, the program has never been approved by Congressional vote and was instead created by Executive Order by the President in his first term, giving the program a flavor of monarchist edict rather than democratic approval.
A few challenges have been brought against the program, though have been largely unsuccessful. That may be changing. A challenge was raised last month against the White House program in the 7th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals, in Chicago by the Madison, Wisconsin based atheist/agnostic Freedom From Religion Foundation, opening the door for this case to make its way through the Federal courts.
The genius (and arrogance) of the President's program is that it was created by Executive Order. Challenges against it, especially from groups of atheists and agnostics like the Freedom From Religion Foundation, no matter how right they may be, can be used by conservative pundits to trump up the familiar anthem that "liberals are attacking religion again." Without broad support for reform or abolition of the program from moderates, libertarians, and people of faith worried about government breaches of the First Amendment, it will likely be spun this way by the culture war pundits.
Forgetting the Constitutional and First Amendment implications of the program for a minute, there are questions to be raised about just where some of the money is going, to what purpose, what kind of oversight there is, and how effective these government grants actually are. The President's proposed 2007 budget includes $322 million dollars toward the program. It's not a huge amount, though not unsubstantial either in these days of bloated federal budgets and lack of funds for everything from education and health care to body armor and veterans medical costs.
So who are the beneficiaries of faith-based pork?
Now's where it gets a bit too easy. Take the case of that apocalyptic fear-monger Pat Robertson.
Looking at the 990 form for Pat Robertson's non-profit organization Operation Blessing International in 2004, nearly $10 million was provided in government grants. Besides this, direct public support through donations came in the form of $182 million that year alone. That's the last one on record for now, so we don't know what the 2005 form states. Go to www.guidestar.com and register and look these for yourself. This is the direct link to the pdf file, though you probably have to have your password ready.
This begs the point: Why does the government need to be giving such large sums of money to a charity organization already bloated with money?
In an interview with the Fox News Channel's Sean Hannity and Alan Colmes, Robertson said that "if the government gets into the faith-based initiative too much, they're going to dominate what the people of faith think. And one of the things they want to impose is on hiring practices. They want to force people to be hired by religious organizations who don't share the fundamental tenets of those religious groups."
Robertson changed his tune the following year, when in October 2002, Tommy Thompson, then the head of the Department of Health and Human Services awarded a $500,000 Compassion Capital Fund grant to Robertson's Operation Blessing International.
Five years later, "the federal government has become a major source of money for Operation Blessing ... In two years, the group's annual revenue from government grants has ballooned from $108,000 to $14.4 million," the Virginian-Pilot's Bill Sizemore recently reported.
For the 2003 fiscal year record I was looking at, around $900,000 in grants went from OBI to Robertson's own Christian Broadcasting Network. Total grants to outside organizations that year were around $1.8 million dollars, all to organizations based in the United States, to churches and faith groups doing missionary work, outreach and proselytizing abroad. Are your tax dollars going to proselytize people internationally through these groups funded by OBI? It sure seems that way. What about salaries? The president and COO that year was William F. Horan, and from the 990 form he made a little over $167,000 for his duties. Ron Chiracosta, the former VP for the organization, made around $114,000. Now, those salaries are probably in line with many large charity salaries, but those charities aren't receiving massive government grants that are being used for proselytizing or to fund their cable TV networks.
All of this doesn't even take into account Robertson's misuse of Operation Blessing abroad for his own purposes, nor how it looks for the U.S. government to be funding an organization where the head (Robertson) has called for the assassination of a foreign leader, and also has described the stroke of another as retribution from God. Check out this GQ article from 2001 about Robertson's gold and diamond interests in Liberia. More of the same at the Washington Post, here and here. And the multi-millionaire Robertson needs $10 million in federal grants to keep afloat? Not likely. Max Blumenthal reports on Robertson's Katrina related dealings here at The Nation. Background on OBI, and the issue of OBI's planes being used to move Robertson's mining equipment in Africa, can be found at Wikipeida.
But enough about Robertson. He's just part of a larger problem. It's not really all about him individually or any of the other religious right crusaders. It's more about doing what is best economically, constitutionally and politically without even having to go the route Bush and some conservatives have gone with these divisive faith-based welfare initiatives.
Bush always used to talk his rhetoric about being a 'uniter' not a 'divider' and in this case (and many) he's been very much the latter. If he could get out of the pocket of the religious right for a while and really look at reforming how social service is done in this country, he could go a long way toward uniting many people.
How about a "Center for Social Entrepreneurship" instead?
Besides all of the questions raised above that go to the heart of the Constitutional separation of Church and State, not to mention government largesse, cronyism and lack of oversight of religious charities, there is the real possibility that many of the programs funded by the Faith-Based and Community Initiatives grants are doing good work. With the massive cuts in welfare and social programs over the past decade, anything to fill those gaps certainly does help, doesn't it?
There's also the real possibility that they are inefficient, poorly run, and subject to graft. How sustainable, efficient and effective is this government payment of religious groups to perform welfare work? How are the charities and organizations chosen? What kind of oversight is there to see that proselytizing abuses, religious discrimination, and government kick-backs don't occur? Since this isn't congressionally approved, any oversight of the chickens pecking for the bucks is done by the executive foxes in the cabinet handing them out.
But all of this commotion and divisiveness doesn't have to be. Why not combine some of America's greatest attributes, philanthropy, scholarship and entrepreneurship without breaking down those Church v. State barriers?
An alternative idea would be for a U.S. Center for Social Entrepreneurship.
There are many examples out there for templates of what something like this could look like, but just to name a few of the more prominent ones:
Ashoka is a great example, as is the Skoll Foundation. The Canadians have one at the University of Alberta. In fact, a lot of universities are starting to get the idea for creating centers for research into social entrepreneurship and corporate responsibility. New York University's Stern School of Business comes to mind, as does Pace University's Wilson Center.
But where would you put a U.S. Center of Social Entrepreneurship?
It would be best for everyone if it were far, far away Washington, D.C., of course, and some distance from either the East of West coasts. Such a center would be best served with as little government interference and bureaucracy as possible, though grants for establishing it would surely be helpful if they came from a combination of government, philanthropy, academia and business donations.
Where to put such a center?
Social Entrepreneur and civil rights activist Van Jones has the right idea:
Why not re-make New Orleans into a "City of Possibility?"
Environmental justice luminary Carl Anthony is right when he says that we must think about a positive vision, not just react to the horrors. People of conscience must move beyond charitable aid -- beyond even just opposing the corporate carpetbaggers -- and towards vision-driven leadership.
If we meet this challenge, the better side of America will win the day. And progressives will help rebuild an American city in a way that reflects our deepest social and ecological values.
During the high point of anti-globalization protest, we used to shout proudly that "A better world is possible!" And it is. Let's help build a better New Orleans -- and show the world what we mean.
And just what could happen at such a center in New Orleans?
Discussion of innovative ideas for partnerships between philanthropy and business for alleviating poverty, fighting racism, combating addiction fits well with the problems that faced New Orleans before Katrina struck and still face the scattered exodus now. And since New Orleans is so close to many of our offshore oil platforms and oil refineries, it would be a perfect place to discuss our other national addictions to oil and unsustainable fossil fuels. With all of the pollution now festers thick across New Orleans in the aftermath of the storm, what better place to find ways to clean up such spills in the future? With the threat of global warming to coastal areas growing by the day, where else but New Orleans would we study how to prevent coastal flooding from storms? As reconstruction develops, what better place than New Orleans to rethink urban planning, bringing in green technology, public transportation, and innovative land use structures? What better place for philanthropy and business to find ways to resettle refugees and get them back to work than New Orleans? Since New Orleans has long been a city of faith and spirituality, what better place to discuss how religious organizations can partner with business and other philanthropy groups, without direct government support, to provide services that fall under the current White House program?
Nationally, instead of having satellite mainly stuck in state capitals, as the Faith-Based and Community Initiatives program does now, offices could be located in areas that need philanthropy and entrepreneurship the most.
How about a satellite center in the small border town of Hidalgo, Texas where the poverty rate was 43.6 percent at last count? Cameron County and El Paso County in the same state aren't that far behind. Wouldn't Hidalgo County be a perfect place for philanthropy and business to find alternative and progressive ways to tackle immigration issues, maybe an immigration-to-work processing center that helps immigrants find sponsors in states that need labor instead of having them mass on the border? What about innovative educational programs for immigrants from Mexico? Right now, all Hidlago has to count on for tourism is the world's largest killer bee.
For satellite offices in more urban areas, why not somewhere in Detroit, with a 33.6 poverty rate, or what about Miami, which has a low $24,031 median income level? Bronx Country in New York with a 30.6 percent poverty rate, Philadelphia County, PA with 24.9%, Baltimore County, MD with 23.9%, or St. Louis, MO 21.6% (not to forget East St. Louis over in Illinois which has a poverty rate of 35.1%) could all use some uplift, hope and innovation. If the city of St. Louis and investors can find $370 million dollars (and a further $400 million for the Ballpark Village) to build a new stadium for the Cardinals over a site contaminated with petroleum, heavy metals and other pollution, you'd think they county could find a few million to invest in a center that could address problems of urban pollution and poverty in new ways. Why not invest in the future? This isn't a game.
There are a lot of "Cities of Possibility" out there if there were enough ingenuity, compassion and innovation to remake them. Just as they say man cannot live on bread alone, neither can he can't live on faith alone. Finding that balance, with the social mission of charities (both secular and religious), the brain power of academia, and the efficiency and entrepreneurship of business leaders, could go a long way toward creating sustainable communities around the country. As is the case now, too often these groups operate in their own little worlds and spheres of influence instead of partnering together for the uplift of all.