Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Faith-Based Corruption

Let's get one thing straight:  the Bush administration's faith-based initiatives program is patronage, plain and simple.  At least, that's the conclusion of this LATimes article.  In particular, the article focuses on FBI funds distributed to black church groups.

And it is corrupt.  That's my conclusion.

A review of the facts below the fold.

  • The money was concentrated in swing states.  That's not a charge leveled by some secular hippie professor; it's an admission made by the program's director.

  • Accountability for the program is poor.  $1 billion was reportedly spent in 2003, but even the government says that doesn't include all the grants, and the distributions that have been tracked include secular groups--even some state and local governments.

  • Groups with ties to the White House or the Republican party also received large grants.

  • The White House asked recipients to attend conferences in battleground states, and the director of the program spent two-thirds of his time last year in those same states.

  • "...A Capitol Hill summit on the faith initiative and the black church....was beamed to about 50 locations on a television feed sponsored by foundations linked to the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, whose Unification Church has received indirect aid through the federal faith-based initiative."

The result?  Reaching out to the black community through the churches may have contributed to record showings for the Republican ticket among African-American voters.  That, in turn, may have made the difference between Ohio being Florida 2004, or being safely in Bush's column.  And the Republicans intend to press their advantage in 2006 and beyond.  Some even hope to land about 30% of the black vote, though even J.C. Watts says that might be ambitious.

So where's the corruption?  In doling out federal funds in patronage?

Nope.  The faith-based initatives program is sleazy, there's no question about that.  But all pork and patronage is sleazy when you get down to it.  By definition, they're the distribution of government wealth more on political grounds than on policy.  But as long as there have been politicians yearning for re-election, and as long as there have been public funds waiting to be shoveled, there have always been ways to connect a hungry citizenry with the public trough.  Love it or hate it, that's the way the game is played, and it's hard to fault the Republicans for playing it.

Is the corruption in the blurring of the lines between church and state?

Actually, no.  For all the hype we've heard about faith-based programs, the executive orders signed by President Bush have only been a modest extension of existing law.  From the very beginnings of the nation, the government has paid religious-affiliated charity groups to provide social and medical services.  Two of the largest recipients of these funds have been Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services, both of whom have been receiving federal funds for decades.

The wrinkle the FBIs have added is to make similar funds available to smaller organizations, and in settings less clearly separated from the religious aspects of the organization.  Put it this way:  you'll usually find the Catholic Charities office in a building next door to a church, but you might find a FBI grantee in the church building itself.

Some of this has been worrisome, but it's not a wholesale attack on the separation clause.  So that's not the problem.

So could it be that Republicans are reaching out to black folk?

No, though that's getting closer.  Republicans should be reaching out to blacks and other minorities.  We're not a white country, and we never have been.  I don't doubt that these grants do real good in the communities where the money is spent, and if the Republicans can make political capital out of helping people, so much the better.  Of course, given this administration's record of backstabbing, betrayal, and unfulfilled promises, if I were the pastor of a congregation receiving these funds, I'd want to be sure the check cleared before I made any endorsements.

Well, is it the involvement of the Unification Church?

I have to admit I'd be more sympathetic to their cause if the Unification Church was actually--you know--a church. But let's be upfront about this:  the Unification Church is a vehicle for the political and religious aspirations of Rev. Moon, not an honest religion.  I don't like money going to them not because I don't like federal dollars spent in churches, but because I think this particular "church" is a sham.  

Unfortunately, they're a sham with very good political connections to people who have not earned a reputation for good judgment.  It's a freaking disgrace that the Republicans would want to be connected to Moon's people in any way, shape or form, but how do you corrupt a relationship that was never virtuous to begin with?  The Republicans want money and votes; Moon wants respectability.  It's a simple transaction, really.

No, the real corruption here is in those pastors taking the FBI funds.  Again, I don't begrudge them the money:  Lord knows their communities need it.  

Given the lack of accountability of the program, it's reasonable to have questions about the effectiveness of how those funds are spent, but set that aside.  The real question here is what kind of model the church is buying into.

As conservatives rightly point out, the Christian demand that we care for the poor does not automatically translate into government programs and services.  But at least with a well-administered program, there's an opportunity to ensure that the funds are being fairly distributed.  A government work program that builds a bridge, however inefficient, still benefits the entire community.

But with patronage, those safeguards are removed.  The qualifier is not need, but political clout.  Only those who are connected are guaranteed access, and those connections are only as good as the next election--or the next swing vote.

Politics aside, I can't bring myself to believe that the Christian project is about making timely, effective endorsements in order to receive a bribe from an incumbent administration.  Though it may very well keep someone fed, that's the logic of bourgeois morality, not the radical call of Jesus Christ to seek the transformation of a world overrun with injustice and oppression.  Patronage challenges nothing, changes nothing.  It only puts off the inevitable day of reckoning, when people have to look in the mirror and ask themselves what they really did to change the inequalities that created the need in the first place.

The corruption, then, is not on the political side of the equation.  It's in the effect the political calculus has on those people who ought to know better.  At what point does working the system become being swallowed up in the system?

At what point have you sold not your vote but your soul?

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