In Washington, President Bush returned to a familiar theme: Faith, and its potential to reshape how the government works.
"If you're addicted to alcohol, and if a faith program is able to get you off alcohol," the president told leaders of religious charities on Thursday, "we ought to say Hallelujah and thanks at the federal level."
Mr. Bush was speaking at the second White House conference on faith-based initiatives. The power of the faith-based initiative, President Bush said, is in the stories. Consider, he said, JC Vision, a faith-based program in Hanesville, Ga., that helps the poor get home loans. The group's director, Dana Ingram, used to operate on a shoe string.
"A few years ago, her program served 500 people on a budget of less than $100,000," Mr. Bush said. "She applied for federal funding. She said, 'Yes, I'm a faith-based program, but I do believe that we can benefit from competitive grant money.' And so she applied, and she was awarded a grant. Her budget is now $400,000. Now she's serving 10,000 people."
That anecdote drew huge applause, and those kinds of statistics deliver a punch. But do they tell the story? Perhaps not, says Marvin Olasky, one of the conservative architects of the faith-based initiative. "President Bush has been very good about giving speeches about this," he says. "But certainly, the attention of the administration has been on Afghanistan and Iraq, ports and other matters of that sort, rather than faith-based initiatives. That's clear."
Remember, Olasky says, the faith-based initiative was the president's first major policy initiative when he came to office in January 2001. But Olasky says the White House chose tax cuts over the faith-based initiative in those first few months, and after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the issue had lost its momentum.
Not so, says James Towey, the administration's point man on the issue.
"The president is delivering on his promise," Towey counters. "Grants to religious charities are up again this year. Congress sent him legislation to protect religious hiring. You see 32 governors now with faith-based offices, so this isn't just a Washington phenomenon. But having said that, there's been a steady headwind all along. I don't think that's ever going to let up. This is a culture change and it takes years."
Specifically, Towey says the amount of federal money going to religious groups has increased 7 percent in the past year, to $2.15 billion. The reason it's not more, he says, is that some invisible barriers remain. For example, he finds it "shocking" that local and state governments awarded only 2-5 percent of their contracts to religious charities. Moreover, Towey says, Congress has not passed legislation allowing for faith-based initiatives, forcing the president to take down "barriers" through executive order.
And that is a good thing, says Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. He believes the initiative is unconstitutional, because it allows groups to discriminate in whom they hire. "I think Congress revolts against the idea that if a religious group gets tax money from all of the people, it can still hang up a sign that says, 'No Jews need apply for a job here,' and get away with it. But that's the central principle of the faith-based initiative. You get tax dollars, and you still get to discriminate on the basis of religion."
Despite the pace, Marvin Olasky says President Bush should get high marks for trying to change a government system that has been hostile to religion. "It took 70 years — from the 1920s to the 1990s — to build up the federal system of social services that we have. It's going to take a long time reverse that."
Still, he says, he wishes it would go faster.