Note: This commentary was delivered by PFM President Mark Earley.
For years to come, President Bush’s supporters and detractors will argue over how he responded to 9/11 and Katrina, conducted the war on terror, and handled the economy.
But there’s one effort that, in my opinion, the administration deserves a lot of credit for-one the media is overlooking. And that’s the President’s Faith-Based and Community Initiative, which released its final report earlier this week.
Early on, President Bush recognized that government alone could not address the myriad needs of the nation’s poor. The faith-based community was an obvious partner, since so many charities and social service groups are religiously based. So the administration “lowered the barriers” that had before made it difficult for faith-based groups to compete for federal grants as they seek to help the needy.
Over the past eight years, faith-based groups received federal dollars to help ex-prisoners, establish substance-abuse treatment programs, stop the spread of AIDS in Africa, tutor inner-city children, set up food banks, and the list goes on and on.
One beneficiary of the Faith-Based and Community Initiative was the Christ Community Health Services of Tennessee. Well, actually, the beneficiaries were the uninsured poor in Memphis, who received medical service they couldn’t have possibly received otherwise. Since 2002, Christ Community Health Services was able to nearly triple the number of needy patients it treated-from 11,000 in 2002 to more than 32,000 in 2008.
Then there was the President’s Prisoner Reentry Initiative. Some 30 faith-based and community organizations received funding to help ex-prisoners become productive citizens.
And I might add that, even though this issue is near and dear to Prison Fellowship’s heart, we received no federal funds because we don’t take federal funds.
Nonetheless, as of September 2008, nearly 16,000 ex-prisoners were enrolled in the program, with nearly 11,000 of them being placed in paying jobs. And one year after their release, only 15 percent of participants in the Reentry Initiative were re-arrested. That’s compared with 44 percent of ex-prisoners nationally.
What’s on the horizon for faith-based initiatives in the future? It’s hard to say. On the campaign trail, then-candidate Barack Obama promised to continue granting federal funds to faith-based organizations. As reported in the Christian Science Monitor, Obama told one Ohio audience, “I believe that change comes not from the top down but from the bottom up, and few are closer to the people than our churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques.”
But President-elect Obama also emphasized that groups accepting federal money could not discriminate in their hiring practices.
That, unfortunately, means that organizations who accept federal funds, like Christ Community Health Services, would have to hire people who don’t share their faith (or who behave in ways that violate their faith).
While the usual critics of faith-based efforts, such as Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, see no problem with this, the fact of the matter is that under these conditions, most faith-based groups would have to refuse federal funds.
And that, in turn, would harm the neediest among us.
The good news is that the Obama transition team has been talking with leaders of faith-based groups about this very issue. Let’s hope they’re listening, not for our sake, but for the sake of those who need our help.