President Bush's faith-based initiative is in trouble.
On Beliefnet today, two leading religious conservatives join the widening circle of evangelicals wary of the plan.
In an exclusive interview, the Rev. Jerry Falwell says he has "deep concerns" about the proposal--and wishes that money would not go to Muslim groups. And in a separate article, Richard Land, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said that while he hopes the plan passes, he personally "would not touch the money with the proverbial 10-foot pole."
The criticism comes just days after Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson said that Bush's plan, by providing money to groups like the Hare Krishnas and the Church of Scientology, creates "an intolerable situation." Meanwhile, Paul Hetrick, a spokesman for Focus on the Family, run by Dr. James Dobson, says that while the group is "still studying" the plan, if the organization were ever eligible for the money, it would probably not accept it.
Even Marvin Olasky, a long-time Bush supporter and author of "Compassionate Conservatism," said recently he is wary of direct government grants.
The comments show what a minefield Bush has entered, and raise serious questions about the political viability of the plan as crafted. President Bush has proposed that faith-based charities be allowed to compete for government funds, as long as they can prove effectiveness in fighting social problems.
"It is doubtful we will ever apply for any assistance under the faith-based initiative plan as Mr. Bush has proposed it," says Falwell, noting that his ministries have never accepted government money.
Falwell, Robertson, and Land all expressed two major concerns: that the money would come with strings attached, and that such a program would have to offer money to religions outside the mainstream--out of both fairness and the need to pass constitutional muster.
"Once the pork barrel is filled, suddenly the Church of Scientology, the Jehovah Witnesses, the various and many denominations and religious groups--and I don't say those words in a pejorative way--begin applying for money--and I don't see how any can be turned down because of their radical and unpopular views. I don't know where that would take us."
"The Moslem faith teaches hate," Falwell said. "I think there's clear evidence that the Islam religion, wherever it has majority control--and I can name a dozen countries--doesn't even allow people of other faiths to express themselves or evangelize or to exist in their presence.... I think that when persons are clearly bigoted towards other persons in the human family, they should be disqualified from funds. For that reason, Islam should be out the door before they knock."
He proposed that Islam be categorized as "bigoted" and eliminated from funding on those grounds.
Land and Falwell both said that despite their reservations, they hope some form of the bill passes--and they both showered praise on Bush's presidency. But their clear concern for the particulars of the faith-based initiative must be considered a huge blow. While the administration was hoping to build a broad-based coalition for the plan, they were counting on religious conservatives to be the shock troops.
Under one scenario, however, the criticisms from Falwell and Robertson could actually help. "This is a good chance for Bush to tutor the religious right about what religious freedom means in this country," says Michael Cromartie, director of evangelical studies at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Institute. He suggested that Bush use this as an opportunity to distance himself from the religious right. "It's all to Bush's advantage to have Robertson and Falwell upset at them."
Cromartie suggested that Bush make this a "Sister Souljah" moment, a reference to the time during the 1992 campaign when Bill Clinton assailed the African American rapper, thereby showing that he could criticize someone from a supportive political group.
How did we get to the point that religious conservatives--the ones who were supposed to be the biggest supporters of Bush's initiative--ended up pouring cold water on it?
During the campaign, religious conservatives loved Bush's pro-religion emphasis and felt that, for the first time, they would have someone in the White House who really was one of them. They always had anxieties about how the faith-based initiative would play out, but submerged those concerns because of their enthusiasm for Bush's candidacy.
They also harbored vague hopes of setting up the program in a way that would somehow skirt the most vexing issues.
But Bush forced to the surface the anxieties of these conservative leaders. How? By being a strong pluralist. Once Bush made it clear that he would focus on the ability of each faith to solve social problems--"results," as he repeatedly put it--he guaranteed that some religions outside the mainstream would be included. That put the religious leaders in the position of deciding what was more important to them: getting federal money, or denying the federal stamp of approval to what they consider fringe religions. They have tried to have it both ways, both praising the initiative and saying they wouldn't accept the money.
But politically, that's a tough posture to pull off. The Bush administration has lately tried to walk through this minefield by changing its rhetorical emphasis from aiding faith-based groups to removing discriminatory obstacles. But this is unlikely to make a big difference, because ultimately they have to decide whether groups like the Krishnas will be allowed to compete or not.
If the plan isn't changed to something more to Robertson's liking? "I see trouble down the road," he wrote in an op-ed in USA Today.
When Falwell speaks at pastors' conferences, he tells audiences to consider the plan--carefully.
"If you or one of your ministries decides to apply for faith-based initiative support, be absolutely convinced before entering the alliance that there are no strings attached, that you will never be called into question for what you believe, what you teach and preach and the way you administer your faith," he said. "It's tempting to suddenly have money available to you that you did not have to raise."
He pointed out that he raises about $3 million each week in order to keep his ministries afloat, and over his nearly 50-year career he has raised $2.5 billion--none of it with government help.
"I'm saying to the younger group 'be careful,'" Falwell said. "That's how it works in most of the socialist countries. Be very careful that you don't surrender any of your freedoms, any of your liberties."