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May 12, 2004

Of Little Faith

Almost immediately upon taking office President Bush made passage of faith-based initiatives - the government funding of the charitable operations of deeply religious groups - a legislative priority. Yet the idea never gained the needed traction in Washington, D.C.

Calvin College professor Doug Koopman looks at where things went wrong (and where they could yet go right) in a new book he is co-author of called "Of Little Faith: The Politics of George W. Bush's Faith-Based Initiatives."

Koopman led Calvin's spring 2001 semester in Washington, D.C. and took the opportunity to work on Capitol Hill on the faith-based initiative for its chief sponsor and Republican leadership member Congressman J.C. Watts, Jr. of Oklahoma.

"The issue," says Koopman, "was a perfect fit for my background and interests. I worked on the Hill for 15 years before coming to Calvin so it was exciting to study an initiative that brought together Christian faith and politics."

Koopman then recruited Wheaton College professor Amy Black to the project as she was spending a year in Washington, D.C. as a congressional fellow and had additional expertise in public policy and executive branch politics. And together the two talked Dave Ryden of Hope College into joining the project. Ryden had been working on how the federal courts were dealing with church-state cases and how African-American churches were responding to faith-based ideas.

The three began their work in the spring of 2001. The resulting book is just out from Georgetown University Press and is based on the trio's previous work and experience as well as a great deal of new information from dozens of mostly confidential interviews with key D.C. players.

It is, says Koopman, a comprehensive, "insider" look at the successes and failures of the faith-based initiatives.

There were, he says, two major mistakes at the start. The first was to not integrate the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (WHOFBCI) into the other White House offices. The WHOFBCI - staffed by faith-based experts with little experience in practical politics - was outside the loop on the early workings of the new Bush Administration as the administration developed its legislative strategy, its communications message and its public outreach efforts. The second mistake was for the White House and House Republicans to make the legislative push for faith-based initiatives a partisan, rather than a bipartisan, exercise.

"Bush entered office," Koopman says, "with three major legislative priorities: education reform, tax cuts and the faith-based initiative. The top White House strategists determined that Bush's education reforms, which led to the No Child Left Behind Act, would be the lone bipartisan legislative exercise in Bush's first year. Tax reform would follow Republican orthodoxy; likewise, the faith-based legislative initiative would appeal to the Republican party's conservative base, not as an outreach effort to moderates and other political independents."

Koopman says this decision was telling in two ways. It showed that the President's top advisors fundamentally misunderstood the practical effects and political appeal of faith-based ideas and it demonstrated that they misread the seriousness of the legislative roadblocks that opponents could, and did, place in its way.

Among other problems: the failure of most White House staff to make faith-based legislation the priority that President Bush clearly wanted it to be, lack of agreement on political strategy between sponsors in the two chambers of Congress, and the decision by the White House and House Republicans to let the conservative Christian Republican core interest groups control the details of legislation.

Koopman says hiring John DiIulio, a nominal Democrat with no direct political experience, was in some ways a mistake (he was never trusted by others in the White House says Koopman), but hastens to add that if his strategy had been pursued - to first do as much possible administratively to make the government more faith-friendly before proposing legislation - the initiative would probably be on much stronger footing today.

Despite the obstacles Koopman says there have been successes.

"All the attention to the legislative failures ironically let faith-based staff persons in the executive branch quietly lay the groundwork for administrative changes," says Koopman, "which are now, almost four years later, well on their way to quietly making federal programs more faith-friendly."

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Contact Phil de Haan
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