When George W. Bush first hit the national political scene in the crowded field for the 2000 Republican nomination, what made him different, what made even liberal Americans take a second look, was his declaration that he was a "compassionate conservative." Unlike the flinty old conservatives of the past, Bush explained, a compassionate conservative would not be afraid to harness the power of government to minister to the unfortunate. But unlike traditional liberal Democrats, who relied on fumbling government bureaucracies, a compassionate conservative would empower and fund the charitable sector, particularly religious groups, to help those in need.

This breakthrough political slogan was embodied by a "faith-based initiative" that Bush talked about incessantly on the campaign trail and rolled out within the first month of taking over the White House. And Bush's image as a different kind of Republican was only reinforced by the tableau of black pastors, conservative evangelical leaders, and liberal crusaders for social justice who gathered around him as he introduced his faith-based domestic policy. The first part of the initiative sought to make it easier for religious organizations to get government grants to provide social services. Trumpeting the success of faith-based groups in Texas that ran drug rehabilitation and prison counseling programs, Bush argued that religious organizations could outperform their secular equivalents and so should be allowed to compete for the same government funds. The policy's second aspect was a proposed tax break to make it worthwhile for individuals to contribute more of their money to charities. By allowing non-itemizers (70 percent of taxpayers) to deduct their charitable contributions, the proposal could infuse as much as $80 billion into the charitable sector. Together, the two ideas embraced classic conservative principles: honoring the unique ability of religious organizations to help those in need, and empowering individuals in the civil sector instead of government.

Four years later, Bush's compassionate conservatism has turned out to be neither compassionate nor conservative. The policy of funding the work of faith-based organizations has, in the face of slashed social service budgets, devolved into a small pork-barrel program that offers token grants to the religious constituencies in Karl Rove's electoral plan for 2004 while making almost no effort to monitor their effectiveness. Meanwhile, the plan to extend tax credits for charitable giving has gone nowhere, despite the three enormous tax cut packages Bush has signed. Like any number of this administration's policies, the faith-based initiative has been so ill-considered, so utterly sacrificed to political expediency, and carried out with so little regard for the problems it was supposed to solve, that it bears only the faintest resemblance to the political philosophy it was supposed to embody. The history of the faith-based initiative tells us little about what could have been a truly innovative social policy, but speaks volumes about the cynical politics of the Bush administration.

Blind faith
From the very beginning, Bush has argued that faith-based groups should be judged on their results, and he insists that they do work better. The difference, he contends, is that they do more than simply minister to physical needs. On the campaign trail in the summer of 2000, Bush told audiences that religious organizations succeed where others fail "because they change hearts, they convince a person to turn their life over to Christ." Whenever "my administration sees a responsibility to help people," he promised, "we will look first to faith-based organizations that have shown their ability to save and change lives." Bush had little empirical evidence to back up the claim that religious organizations were more effective. But he relentlessly talked of two seemingly-promising programs that the Texas state government had supported while he was governor. One was Teen Challenge, a drug rehabilitation program that claimed an astonishing 86 percent success rate. The other was InnerChange, a counseling program for prisoners that boasted impressively low levels of recidivism among its graduates. Certain critics raised questions about the reliability of the studies that produced these figures. But Bush kept repeating the claims, and most of the press corps passed them along uncritically.

Once in office, Bush wasted no time setting up a new bureaucratic structure to cater specifically to the needs of faith-based groups. He created a White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and appointed political scientist John DiIulio (a Democrat) to run it before his first week was out; soon after, the White House sent proposed legislation to Congress that would expand federal grant eligibility to religious groups. But the proposal came loaded with a number of controversial provisions, including giving religious contractors the right not to hire employees of a different faith, a clear violation of federal anti-discrimination statutes. When the legislation, which DiIulio himself described as "an absolute political non-starter," went nowhere, Bush didn't bat an eye. He simply pulled out his pen and implemented his idea via a series of executive orders instead.