Faith-Based Leaders Question Administration's Commitment

Church leaders who say they represent millions of mainline Protestants are accusing the Bush administration of not going far enough to address poverty across America. Some are even questioning their support for President Bush's faith-based initiative (search).

“The lack of a consistent, coherent, and integrated domestic policy that benefits low-income people makes our continued support for your faith-based initiative increasingly untenable,” wrote 34 church leaders in a June 9 letter to Bush.

“The good people who provide such [social] services are feeling overwhelmed by increasing need and diminishing resources. And many are feeling betrayed,” the letter reads.

The letter was spearheaded by Jim Wallis, founder and editor of Sojourners magazine and it was written on the letterhead of Call to Renewal, an assembly of churches and faith-based organizations with the goal of fighting poverty.

Wallis, a Democrat who signed on early to support the president's faith-based initiative, has said the president has not sufficiently addressed poverty in America.

He used the letter as a platform to criticize Republicans for agreeing to drop lower-income families from the $400 per child tax credit that was signed into law last month.

House and Senate lawmakers later passed different versions of legislation to include those lower-income households. But the measures are so different, many say they won't be able to come to an agreement, despite pressure by Bush to send him a bill.

Religious leaders, including Wallis, see the impasse as a sign the administration is not committed to following through on promises to address the plight of low-income families, said Jim Winkler, a general secretary for the United Methodist Church.

“With tax cuts going to the wealthiest among us, and more and more going into the military, we are in a position where we need to rethink our national priorities,” said Winkler.

Critics of Call to Renewal said the letter's signatories are far-left political ideologues. They say the letter does not represent the feelings of all church leaders and their congregants.

“These are liberal religious leaders from the get-go. Looking over the list, I would say it would not be a stretch to say only 10 percent of them voted for Bush, and even that 10 percent wouldn’t admit that to their friends,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s (search) Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

“I’m sure he’s cognizant of their concerns, but the president knows where these people are coming from,” Land added.

Lou Giovino, a spokesman for the Catholic League (search), said it's notable that Call to Renewal emerged during the tax cut debates, a severely partisan issue on Capitol Hill. Wallis was often seen railing against the Republicans alongside Democratic leaders at the height of the fight.

“We find it intellectually insulting” Giovino said of the letter. “It’s just more left-wing rhetoric, empty of any proposals.”

But another of the letter’s signers, the Rev. John Bryson Chane, the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, D.C., took offense at the characterization.

“We may not agree on theological or political theory, but what we can agree on as Christians is that poverty is an abomination,” he said. “I would be addressing this issue in the same way as a bishop if there was a Democrat in the White House.”

Winkler said many of the mainline churches support Bush’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (search), which is tasked with helping churches and organizations engaging in social services to get better access to federal grants.

Though many religious agencies have had limited grant access in the past, Bush has made it a priority to expand access by tearing down the barriers he says are rooted in religious bias.

That hasn't gone over well with liberal Democrats in Congress who say the president's initiatives violate the separation of church and state. Conservatives also have expressed concern that churches could lose their autonomy if the government gets too involved in their funding. They speak specifically to the right of faith-based groups not to hire employees whose lifestyles conflict with the religious dictates of their particular faith.

A watered-down version of Bush’s faith-based plan passed the House in 2001, but stalled in the Senate before Congress adjourned for the year. As a result, Bush has so far been unable to realize most of his agenda. 

Instead, he has turned to signing executive orders for individual agencies, allowing religious groups to use federal funds for social services while ensuring their autonomy in hiring practices and religious identity.

Some in Congress have not yet given up hope of a legislative mandate for religious groups. In April, the Senate passed the Charity Aid Recovery and Empowerment Act (search), though it did not include the controversial hiring provisions pursued by Bush. The House is expected to pass a similar bill this summer.