President Bush has announced a new White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, which will make it easier for religious groups to compete for government grants to help them provide social services. Here are some frequently asked questions about the issue.

What is faith-based action?
So-called "faith-based" organizations are charity groups that incorporate religious principles into their missions. These groups may operate out of individual churches or other congregations, or they may be independent organizations that bring together several different religious bodies around a particular social issue, like prison ministry, drug rehabilitation, or child care.

What is charitable choice, and how does it relate to Bush's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives?
Authored by Sen. John Ashcroft, "charitable choice" is the provision of the 1996 welfare reform law that allows religiously oriented charities to receive government money. The "choice" in "charitable choice" means that faith-based groups can compete with secular nonprofit organizations for government money. The newly-established office will be charged with regulating how charitable choice should be implemented on a national level.

How is this different from what religious groups already do?
Churches that wanted to get government money for social services such as homeless shelters or after-school programs used to be required to form separate tax-exempt nonprofit organizations in order to receive the funds. These nonprofits were separate, secular entities, and religious symbols, Bible study, and proselytizing, for example, were strictly forbidden. Charitable choice allows some religious expression into programs that receive government money--for example, a picture of Jesus may hang on the wall of a church soup kitchen.

Can these groups still proselytize if they get government money?
No, they probably will be prohibited from "proselytizing" -- although defining that word will be a big battle. Under current law, faith-based groups can clearly state that part of their mission is religious, they can hold Bible study classes, and they can post religious symbols in their buildings, but they can't in any way make social services contingent upon participation in any of these activities, nor can they use tax dollars to buy Bibles or other religious objects.

Why is Bush so enthusiastic about the potential for faith-based groups?
Bush credits prayer as a pivotal influence in his own life; he says a conversation with the Rev. Billy Graham and subsequent Bible study and daily prayer led to his 1985 decision to stop drinking. Because of this experience, he often talks about the "transformative" power of prayer to change people's behavior, and he supports organizations--like the Prison Fellowship Ministry in Caty, Texas--that recognize the connection between the physical needs of the poor and their "spiritual" needs. The architect of "compassionate conservatism," Marvin Olasky, and former Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith--now a chief policy adviser on faith-based issues--were important influences on Bush in this area.

Can religious charities discriminate in any way under Bush's plan?
Although Bush has not directly addressed this issue in Monday's announcement, the 1996 charitable choice law stipulates that religious groups will be able to discriminate in terms of whom they hire to work or volunteer in their organizations. For example, they will be able to require a belief in Jesus as the Messiah as a condition for hiring. But they will absolutely not be allowed to withhold services from people in the community who come to them for help but might not share their religious orientation.

What do you do if you don't want to go to a faith-based provider?
Part of the charitable-choice provision--and part of Bush's proposal for funding faith-based groups--is a requirement that a so-called "secular alternative" to religion-based services be available. So if a person goes to a drug rehabilitation program but feels uncomfortable with prayers that begin each session, he or she may choose another accessible program that has no religious component.

How does Bush's faith-based agenda relate to compassionate conservatism?
Faith-based organizations are "compassionate" because they are based on the premise that prayer and religious community are necessary components of improving the lives of the poor and needy. They are "conservative" because while they will receive government funds for some of their programs, Bush hopes the groups will share the burden of providing for poor Americans with the government.
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