MEDIA: Cult fear hits Bush plan to fund by faith (Guardian, 13 Mar 01)

13 Mar 2001


THE GUARDIAN, 13 March 2001

Cult fear hits Bush plan to fund by faith

Martin Kettle in Washington

George Bush's plan to channel US government aid to "faith-based" religious charities is being held back by the fear that it could end up funding controversial groups such as The Church of Scientology, Hare Krishna and the Unification Church - the Moonies..

The initiative, launched with great fanfare at a White House prayer breakfast in the president's second week in office, has stirred up a hornet's nest of accusations across the spectrum of religious groups and is being radically redrafted.

The decision to delay its introduction was taken at the end of last week after an unexpected war of words on the religious right threatened to derail the entire scheme.

"We're postponing," Don Eberly, deputy director of the White House office in charge of the faith-based programme, announced yesterday. "We're not ready."

The prospect of the billion-dollar initiative channelling large sums of public funds into the coffers of fringe groups is a very real one.

The groups have made it clear that they are anxious to get a slice of any government funding. For example, the Church of Scientology has said it will seek government aid for its drug rehabilitation and literacy programmes, which are based on the "dianetics" theories of the group's founder L Ron Hubbard.

The Hare Krishnas are gearing up to solicit federal funds for their prison release halfway houses and shelters for the homeless.

And the Rev Sun Myung Moon's church, now called the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, is planning to ask for taxpayers' money to promote its sexual abstinence programmes in schools.

Conservative Christian bodies have expressed anxiety that Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam organisation, which runs several rehabilitation and education schemes for black American prisoners, might also try to become a beneficiary of Mr Bush's initiative. Mr Farrakhan has said he is not interested, however.

The furore raised by the plan - a central plank of the "compassionate conservative" platform on which Mr Bush campaigned for the presidency last year - has taken an entirely different turn from the one his advisers expected.

The administration prepared for an outcry from organisations and public figures who oppose any links between church and state.

What it did not expect was that most of the loudest criticism would come from the conservative Christian right, which was expected to be among the most vociferous supporters.

The critics include the veteran conservatives Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, as well as Richard Land of the influential Southern Baptist Convention.

But perhaps the most remarkable opponent is Marvin Olasky, the guru of compassionate conservatism and a former Bush adviser whose ideas are at the root of the entire faith-based strategy.

In an article in the Wall Street Journal yesterday, Mr Robertson described the prospect that Scientologists might be beneficiaries of the scheme as "an intolerable situation".

Mr Falwell, in an interview last week, objected to Islamic groups having access to federal funds.

But the main complaint, which they share with Professor Olasky, is the White House declaration that religious groups which receive federal funds must not proselytise for converts. Such a condition would threaten "their very raison d' tre", Mr Robertson says.

Prof Olasky told a meeting last week: "I cannot give blanket support now because I am not willing to support discrimination in grant-making against evangelicals."

At the heart of the problem is the fact that the faith-based groups whose work he wishes to support are overwhelmingly evangelical, and see their welfare and religious roles as inseparable.

Mr Bush, on the other hand, wants to avoid being seen as the prisoner of the religious right. He said from the outset that he wished to fund the groups' welfare work but not their attempts at religious conversion. To Prof Olasky and Mr Robertson that decision negated the whole purpose of the programme.

In addition, many of the religious groups are worried about the consequences of such links with the federal government. "With the king's shillings come the king's shackles," Mr Land told an interviewer at the weekend.

The furore leaves the future of the planned White House bill on the faith-based initiative up in the air. The administration originally intended a bill to authorise federal funding of religious groups and to preserve the tax deductibility of donations to such groups.

"There is an innate mistrust of government among the religious right," said Robert Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "With government funding comes government regulations. Suddenly a lot of the groups are having second thoughts."


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