The Stealth Presidency: George Bush and “Faith-Based” Government

Lost amidst the media clamor over George W. Bush’s U.S. Supreme Court appointment in early October was a New York federal court decision giving constitutional legitimacy to the president’s scheme of “faith-based” government. Ruling in the case of Lown v Salvation Army, District Judge Sidney Stein (a Bill Clinton appointee) held that religious institutions are exempt from a section of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibiting religious discrimination in personnel matters by organizations receiving federal funds. While Stein let go forward a part of the suit filed by employees of the Salvation Army alleging that the charity had specifically used government money for religious purposes, among the claims he dismissed was a charge by the plaintiffs that they had been forced from their jobs after refusing to divulge their religious beliefs (and, in one instance, the sexual orientation of co-workers). Lead plaintiff Anne Lown, who had worked for the Salvation Army for 24 years at the time she tendered her resignation, was Associate Director of the organization’s Social Services for Children (SSC) program in New York City, a program that, according to court records, is 95% dependent upon federal funds.  

The Bush Administration has been notoriously secretive during its five years in office, for example, holding closed-door meetings between Vice-President Dick Cheney and energy industry executives, severely limiting public access to presidential papers, failing to release information about certain public health matters such as “mad cow” disease, and limiting consumer protection information, including automobile safety data.  Moreover, with apparent exceptions for the likes of Karl Rove, “Scooter” Libby, and Cheney himself, the White House has been unrelenting in its support of Justice Department investigations into government leaks. While Bush’s announcement of a “faith-based” (read Christian conservative) initiative generated much controversy, the actual measures taken to put it in motion since then have been similarly designed to escape public scrutiny.

Religious institutions have long been “contract” social-service providers in the United States. Few paid attention to a “Charitable Choice” section (Sec. 104) of the 1996 welfare bill signed into law by President Clinton easing grant-application restrictions for religious social service agencies. Upon inauguration in 2001, Bush took advantage of the opportunity this afforded to “fly below the radar” and promote partnerships between government and groups with religious aims and tactics. Using a strategy termed the “administrative presidency” by political scientist Richard Nathan, Bush employed an array of unilateral techniques. His initial executive orders (signed eight days after taking office) created a White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (FBCI), required that Departments of Labor, Education, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, as well as the Attorney General’s Office, establish FBCI units (similar entities were later created at the Agency for International Development, the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, and Veterans Affairs, and the Small Business Administration), and directed that plans be developed to circumvent legal barriers to “faith-based” funding. Staffed by strategically-placed political appointees selected to rewrite grant procedures, eligibility rules, and operating regulations, FBCI centers have aggressively pursued the goal of making public funds available to faith-based organizations (FBOs) providing a variety of services, including adoption, day care, HIV care, and housing.

Bush’s vision has the political state playing moral “preacher, teacher, and cop.” The piety to which he is ostensibly committed draws upon an “activist” conservatism that is determined to empower “faith-based” institutions working outside conventional government channels. Thus, the administration has reversed several longstanding policies governing state-church relations. No longer would religious groups be prohibited from using government money to build or rehab “dual-use” facilities from which they run both social service programs and religious activities. Nor would they be prevented from using federal job-training vouchers to provide “spiritual guidance” for prospective employees. Lastly, federally-funded “faith-based” groups would now be permitted to consider religion in employment decisions (it was this circumstance that resulted in the lawsuit against the Salvation Army). Concurrent with these changes, the White House began providing grant-application training for FBOs and actively seeking public monies for them. 

Ascertaining just how much tax-payer money has actually been channeled to religious organizations is difficult because the White House claims that it does not track such information. What is one, therefore, to make of figures that the Administration released indicating that it handed out just over $1 billion in grants to such groups in 2003, and about $2 billion in 2004, while its revised “decision rules” indicate that they are eligible for about $28 billion in federal monies? The same goes for questions of effectiveness; the White House has done little monitoring of “faith-based” efforts, relying instead upon anecdotes about their performance and the president’s confidence in their long-term success. The “research” that tells a favorable story about a “faith-based” program turns out to have “cooked the books”: for example, reports lauding Teen Challenge, Bush’s favorite “substance abuse” program, for its 86% “recovery” rate fail to note both an 82% drop-out rate and the use of a self-selected sample of completers. Ironically, a study released by the neo-conservative Manhattan Institute touting convicted Watergate conspirator-turned born-again Christian Chuck Olson’s prison program — “InnerChange Freedom Initiative” (IFI) — actually demonstrates that participant recidivism rates were higher than were those for a control group.

Table 3, Recidivism Data among IFI Participants and the Match Group
Source: Byron R. Johnson and David B. Larson, “The InnerChange Freedom Initiative: A Preliminary Evaluation of a Faith-Based Prison Program,” 2003, p. 17 [Click on the table to enlarge it.]

Moreover, an analysis of job-training found that participants in secular programs were more likely to find full-time employment with health insurance than participants in faith-based programs.1 No matter, the president has set his second-term sights on “persuading” the states to direct the $40 billion in federal funds that they administer to the “faith-based” sector.

While the federal court ruling enabling religious organizations to discriminate in hiring could conceivably be overturned on appeal, there exists little reason to believe that the U.S. Supreme Court (aided and abetted by two new Bush appointees, no less) will move away from its current willingness to blur, weaken and, perhaps, undo the separationist doctrine. Even if the decision is ultimately sustained, a majority of justices may still not decide in favor of the right of religious organizations to use public resources to engage in religious indoctrination of employees and service recipients. Of course, George Bush is betting otherwise. In stealth fashion, the president has worked to put “faith-based” government into operation. Judge Sidney Stein has now provided him with a chance to prove that the edifice of faith is no temporary artifice.


1. Partha Deb and Dana Jones, “Does Faith Work? A Comparison of Labor Market Outcomes of Religious and Secular Job Training Programs,” October 2003.

City on Fire
Michael Hoover is a professor of political science at Seminole Community College. Hoover co-authored City on Fire: Hong Kong Cinema. with Lisa Odham Stokes