Saturday, February 2, 2013

Amen (again) to faith-based initiatives

John J. DiIulio Jr.*

You probably know that millions of low-income children receive federally-funded free and reduced-price meals in school. But do you have any idea how these same needy children are fed during the summer months when school is out?

No? Then ask Max Finberg, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Finberg will tell you that about 19 million children receive USDA-funded meals in school, but only about 2.3 million participate in the agency’s summer program. He will also tell you that were it not for faith-based organizations by the thousands, the annual summer spike in childhood hunger would be even worse than it is.

For example, last summer in Philadelphia, more than 1,000 sites including churches and recreation centers delivered more than 3 million USDA-funded breakfasts, lunches, and snacks. The local Catholic Nutrition Development Services network alone accounted for more than a million meals. Still, for all that, Philly still fed only about half the kids who got free or reduced-price meals during the school year.

Finberg, a model public servant, is working hard to get more religious nonprofits all across the country to partner with USDA. His is one of a dozen faith centers in cabinet departments that were established during President Barack Obama’s first term. They all work with Reverend Joshua DuBois, a brilliant young minister with a graduate degree in public administration from Princeton. Dubois is now beginning his fifth year as director of the White House Office off Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

I confess that I like DuBois a lot better than I liked President George W. Bush’s first “faith czar.” A dozen years ago today, Bush established the first White House faith-based office and I served as its first director. The office was new, but the presidential-level push to increase support for sacred places that serve civic purposes like feeding hungry children was not.

That push started in 1996. President Bill Clinton endorsed “charitable choice,” the provision of the welfare reform law that permits faith-based organizations to compete for federal social services delivery grants on the same basis as all other grant-seeking organizations do provided that no tax dollars are used to proselytize, provide sectarian instruction, or conduct worship services. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, then led by Andrew Cuomo, established the federal government’s first faith-based center.

As candidate Obama had promised in 2008, his first steps on faith-based were to clarify and codify the basic constitutional rules of church-state engagement. That mission was accomplished in 2009 and 2010 through White House conferences and reports. Start with the excellent overview statement by Dubois and company, Partnerships for the Common Good.

And as had been promised at the “faith caucus” sessions of the 2008 Democratic National Convention, Obama embraced the Bush emphasis on a “level laying field” in federal grant-making, but also emphasized interfaith dialogue and service and other goals that had nothing to do with dispensing federal money.

Did broadening the focus result in fewer faith-based grantees or a drop in total federal funding for religious nonprofits? Hard data are hard to find, but it appears that the number of faith-based grantees has actually increased since 2008, and some religious nonprofits, notably the largest Catholic ones, have received record federal funding over the last several years.

Subject to case by case reviews, the Obama administration has let stand rules that permit religious nonprofits that receive government grants to hire only co-religionists, but it has also issued new rules that require religious nonprofits that receive federal money to offer employees insurance packages that violate some groups’ religious beliefs and tenets.

Many secular liberals are peeved by the former policy, and many religious conservatives are riled by the latter policy. I may be alone in thinking that both have a legitimate gripe. And even though overall funding has not fallen, certain faith communities, notably urban Latino religious nonprofits, are arguably still quite under-funded (more on that in my next essay).

Still, here we are, twelve years to the day into having a “faith-based” office in the White House, and seventeen years since the first “charitable choice” law. It turns out that we can walk, chew gum, debate hot-button church-state issues, sue each other, and do ever more to foster “faith-based and neighborhood partnerships” that feed hungry children, expand affordable housing, generate jobs for ex-prisoners, and do other real social and civic good all at the same time.


* John J. DiIulio, Jr. served as first director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, and is the author of “Godly Republic: A Centrist Blueprint for America’s Faith-Based Future” (University of California, 2007).

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