Little Faith: The Politics of George W. Bush’s Faith-Based Initiatives
Almost immediately upon taking office, President Bush made the 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 has co-authored called Of Little Faith: The Politics of George W. Bush’s Faith-Based Initiatives.
Koopman led Calvin’s spring 2001 semester program in Washington, D.C., and took the opportunity to work on Capitol Hill on the faith-based initiative for its chief sponsor, Congressman J. C. Watts, Jr., of Oklahoma.
“The issue,” said 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 resultant book 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 Washington players.
It is, said Koopman, a comprehensive, “insider” look at the successes and failures of the faith-based initiatives.
There were, he said, 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 it 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 exercise.
“Bush entered office,” Koopman said, “with three major legislative priorities: education reform, tax cuts and the faith-based initiative. The top White House strategists determined that Bush’s education reform, 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 said this decision was telling in two ways. It showed that the president’s top advisers 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.
Despite the obstacles, Koopman said that 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,” said Koopman, “which are now, almost four years later, well on their way to quietly making federal programs more faith-friendly.”
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