So this is compassion?

George Bush's compassionate conservatism sounds a lot like Al Gore's. But are faith-based charities really the answer to America's problems?

Published July 29, 1999 8:00AM (EDT)

In an Indianapolis speech called The Duty of Hope last week, candidate George W. Bush unveiled a palette of proposals to fill in the details of his heretofore fuzzy outline of "compassionate conservatism." The capstone of his plan is a pledge of $8 billion in tax incentives to increase donations to faith-based and secular organizations involved in community work. That figure represents 10 percent of the non-Social Security surplus (a surplus which, it should be noted, will only exist if Congress adheres to stringent budget goals over the next few years and the economy continues to overheat).

"[Government] must act in the common good," he said, "and that good is not common until it is shared by those in need." He went on: "In every instance where my administration sees a responsibility to help people, we will look first to faith-based organizations, charities and community groups that have shown their ability to save and change lives," he said.

First? Maybe Bush should be running for president of the United Way instead of president of the United States.

It is no accident that Bush's first major policy pronouncement exalts religion. Challenged for months to address issues like the minimum wage, tax cuts, abortion and gun control, the man who would lead America released a comprehensive proposal ostensibly aimed at highlighting the role of religion in public policy instead.

What courage. Lately politicians and pundits have been trying to act like Christian martyrs, insisting their religious beliefs have been marginalized by godless liberals and the media. Even Al Gore fell into it in May, when he tried to steal Bush's thunder by announcing his own faith-based social-service strategy. More recently, George magazine columnist Ann Coulter jumped on the religious victim bandwagon when she opined that the "real crisis" in American politics today is the "relentless marginalization of traditional American views" (read: conservatism and the Christian religion).

Bush's speech echoes the same self-pitying perception of this vast bloc of citizens as an oppressed minority. Bravely, he said, "A president can speak for abstinence and accountability and the power of faith," all the things we heathens fight so hard to prevent. Exactly where does the pro-promiscuity, pro-irresponsibility, pro-devil worshippers' lobby meet and how much are the dues? Bush pretends to go out on a political limb when he knows full well that there isn't a safer perch to occupy in this one nation under God. Patriotism is still the last refuge of a scoundrel but, these days, religion fills that role for a candidate.

Bush is far from alone in courting the many religious Americans among us. Who will ever forget President Clinton ostentatiously belting out gospel songs with black choirs, and throwing everybody off the beat? With the House's recent passage of the Religious Rights Bill, the near-canonization of Columbine High School victim Cassie Bernall and each politician scrambling to thump the Bible harder than the next born-again politico, certainly Bush's strategy was a no-brainer for his campaign. Imagine running for president as an atheist, agnostic or Farrakhan-follower in these self-righteous times -- that would require some holy cojones.

The governor may think he's insulated himself from critique on this pronouncement, but I beg to differ. One American's right not to be bothered by another's religion is just as important as the right to believe as conscience dictates. Further, having grown up in the patriarchal, Protestant black church -- a segment increasingly depended upon to deliver services in the inner city -- I have long viewed this growing trend toward faith-based social programming with equal measures of hope and alarm. Reliance on faith-based and private charity in troubled communities is far from trouble-free.

For one thing, there's the gender issue. In the black community, it is often argued that community groups disproportionately target men with their resources (both in the delivery and receipt of services) and ignore black women. Black women continually rail against the trumpeting of black men's issues as the black community's issues. An excellent recent example of this is JFK Jr.'s vaunted support for Mike Tyson. Much was made of his visiting this violent, unrepentant man in prison. It was lauded as proof of his concern for blacks in general. Did he visit Desiree Washington, the black woman Tyson raped? A great many of us do not believe Tyson's real problem is racism. Likewise, Clarence Thomas' and O.J. Simpson's problems were seen as racial, while Anita Hill's complaints were merely gender-based and therefore less significant.

I know of one well-respected group that has been fervent in its discrimination against female volunteers and administrators, running off with sexual harassment and belittlement the few who tried to persevere. One who held out the longest told me that when she protested the fact that the millions of dollars the group received were being targeted almost exclusively at men, her protests bore fruit. Leaders of the group decided to have the male felons and drug addicts "chastise the prostitutes" in the neighborhood. She quit, too.

So the issue of local decision-making about social programs in the black community is much more complicated than first appears. That said, though, it doesn't take an Einstein to see that the people living and working at ground zero are best-positioned to tackle local problems. That's what gives me hope. I know of a group of men who brokered a gang truce and led the former bangers to productive, responsible lives. These overtly religious men were largely untrained for this kind of social work; all they had to rely on was their knowledge of the streets and the concern that middle age brought them after their wild youths. No HUD task force could have accomplished what they did, at such great personal risk and in such a short time (the war was ended within two weeks of their intervention; two years later, most of the young men they reached are still at work, still reformed).

The group has since been showered with governmental and private support, deservedly so. There's a jobs-and-education program and mental-health services -- nearly all of it, though, for "the endangered black man." By the group's own admission, they do virtually nothing for the women who kept the neighborhood functioning while their charges were making it unlivable. And there is virtually no way to opt out of the religious aspects of their program (though I doubt that many want to); prayer and proselytizing infuse every activity.

When I last spoke with them, they were planning a campaign against the welfare bureaucracy and its aggressive pursuit of support for their charges' many unsupported children. They claimed that often the cash or in-kind child support (diapers, formula) they paid directly to the mothers went uncredited. (Their hostility to the mothers of their children and their demands was palpable.) They wanted the system changed to recognize these undocumented payments.

I asked them: "Why not send checks? Money orders? Get handwritten receipts? And, by the way, what about birth control?"

A surprised silence reigned. With no women in management of the organization and virtually none receiving services, their plan had made perfect sense to them, especially given that it fed their lifelong sense of victimization (by both the white man and the ever-demanding black woman) and their newfound sense of power. To their credit, they acknowledged that I had a point, even as they continued to gripe about the nuisance factor of receipt generation. It was all I could do not to ask if they'd leave Foot Locker without a receipt for the expensive sneakers they all sported.

So when Bush promises that no organization will have to compromise its core values and spiritual mission to get the help it needs, I have to wade through a strong sense of ambivalence. Will that include the inner-city church I witnessed instructing the kids on its basketball team that white churches would be racist towards them, and to just pray for forgiveness when the white folks cheated them? Well-intentioned though many of these groups may be, they are also often self-limiting, anti-female, anti-intellectual and frankly racist.

Bush promises that participation in faith-based programs will be truly voluntary and that there will be secular alternatives. What will he do about programs like the one I visited as a journalist, which physically dragged me into a prayer circle? The more I protested, the more they just knew my soul needed saving. At a recent religious conference, even though I was wearing a big, neon press badge, I was hissed at for not participating in the prayers and songs. I'm a middle-aged, world-traveled, well-educated journalist with a law degree from Harvard, and I find myself both intimidated and angry in these situations. Junkies, desperate parents and the illiterate are supposed to stand up against such onslaughts? Is there really such a thing as free will in this context?

Anyone who's done work in the inner city deserves our commendation and respect. It's still an open question, though, whether many of these groups deserve our tax dollars. Aside from the political and social problematics, there remains the very basic question of efficacy. As Jacob Hacker, fellow of the New America Foundation, wrote in the New Republic, "It remains an open question just how effective faith-based organizations really would be in a greatly expanded role. Systematic research on [these programs] is meager." State, local and federal spending on social programs exceeded (potentially by as much as half again) $1.4 trillion in 1994. The tally for faith-based and private organizations is likely only $15 to $20 billion. Even if the latter figure were significantly underestimated, it would still be dwarfed by government spending on social programs.

"To expect institutions of this scope to dramatically expand their infrastructure and expertise in response to new government grants -- much less to become the nation's core providers of social assistance -- is unrealistic," Hacker concludes.

God only knows how many more pious odes to the candidates' "personal relationship with Jesus Christ" America will have to survive until election day. Why doesn't that personal relationship stay personal? If Christians, if any religious group, are going to make their beliefs a political issue, then they should only be allowed to sponsor policies structured in accordance with those beliefs. I take today's sermon from Matthew 6:1-6: "Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven. Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do, that they may have glory of men."

In this oh-so-religious day where angel sightings are commonplace and Jesus is available to help you find parking spaces, it's legitimate to suspect that politicians' fervent belief in faith-based and private charity is also a convenient cover for the abdication of government responsibility to the more easily dominated state and local levels, the coup de grace of Clinton's "sink or swim" welfare reform bill of 1996.

Bush speaks movingly of the hordes lined up at 3 and 4 a.m. for free dental services offered by a religious charity in Texas, but he says nothing about expanding funding to provide health care for the millions of uninsured Americans. We shouldn't only be praising the few valiant dentists pulling molars on their free time; we should be lamenting the fact that we consign so many struggling Americans to scrounging a handout for care that in other countries is a birthright.

Some of us don't need a Bible to tell us that's immoral.

By Debra Dickerson


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