Stimulating faith-based groups

Last week Politico broke the news that $140 million of $787+ billion stimulus last year went to faith-based organizations. Reporters Ben Smith and Byron Tau's piece "Obama's stimulus pours millions into faith-based groups," begins:

The stimulus bought Castleton United Methodist Church in Indianapolis a new heating and cooling system. In Laramie, Wyo., it bought the Church of St. Laurence O'Toole new windows for the Roman Catholic school it runs. And in Harrisburg, Pa., Christian Churches United of the Tri-County Area spent its $120,000 in stimulus funding on food and shelter for local homeless people.

"It kind of fell from the sky, and it was unbelievable that we had this much extra money," said Jackie Rucker, executive director of the church-sponsored nonprofit in Pennsylvania's capital.

For many conservatives, the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, as the stimulus is formally known, has been Exhibit A in their case against the Obama administration, a symbol for an era they feel will be defined by out-of-control government spending.

But the stimulus is also the largest-scale embodiment of what was, not long ago, a conservative priority: directing tax dollars to "faith-based initiatives," as President George W. Bush called them.

I think Politico is probably referring not to a "conservative" priority so much as President George W. Bush's priority. Politico was launched years after Bush had signed his executive orders -- the first of his presidency -- launching a faith-based initiative office. And while I'm a long-time critic of faith-based initiatives, they were always popular with the general public, not just conservatives.

I'm not sure I understand this paragraph:

The story of the Obama administration's large-scale spending on faith-based groups has been largely untold, perhaps because it cuts so sharply across the moment's intensely partisan narrative. And in fact, when the stimulus was being debated in February 2009, conservatives attacked the bill as "anti-religious" in its spending guidelines.

I searched to find out which coalition of conservative groups billed the group "anti-religious" but it turns out it was just Mike Huckabee. But I don't understand the first line of the above paragraph. Yes, things are partisan. (Have you seen this video of attack ads from the 1800 campaign?)

So spending on faith-based groups has been unreported by the press because it "cuts across the moment's intensely partisan narrative"? More than a year ago, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life studied how coverage of the Presidential faith-based office had varied between 2001 and 2009. They concluded that the press focused on controversy with President Bush's office and procedural matters with President Obama's. And there were much fewer stories in 2009.

So in 2009, when Republicans were hard to find in Washington, the press didn't cover the issue because it "cut across the moment's intensely uni-partisan narrative," I guess. And then the press isn't covering it this year because of the opposite? Okay. Or maybe there's just a serious double standard with how the press covered President Bush's faith-based office and the way it's covered Obama's.

The article has some interesting parts, such as a section on how taxpayer funds were spent through the Energy Department -- on refurbishing sanctuaries. I also thought this section was interesting:

Some conservative critics remain. Jim Towey, one of the heads of the faith-based office in the Bush years, told POLITICO he believed the programs would very likely favor groups that backed Obama's policies and said that with large federal programs like Head Start, even Bush had been able to direct only "a nickel on the dollar" to faith-based groups.

Other observers, though, see more continuity with Bush's program. Obama's approach to spending government money on faith-based initiatives has been "almost entirely identical" to the Bush policy, said Robert Tuttle, a professor of law and religion at The George Washington University.

Now, it would be interesting to see if the funds favored groups that were political allies of the administration, and I hope that even a tiny, tiny fraction of the reporters who attempted to make that case with Bush's faith-based initiatives do the same with the data for recent years. But the thing that got me about the Towey quote is that if Bush hoped to direct 5 percent of funds to faith-based groups -- I think that's what the nickel on the dollar phrase means -- then what percentage of $787 billion is $140 million? It's .0177 percent. So what does that quote even mean?

Tuttle is factually right. The approaches of President Bush's and President Obama's faith-based offices have been nearly identical, in terms of the regulations they've issued or followed. At least at the agency level. The White House offices have been a bit different, with President Obama using his for more direct political liaisons with religious folks, such as conference calls asking for help in passing health care or improving public opinion about the bill that did pass.

Politico argues in its piece that religious groups that received federal funds include those that clashed with the administration on other policy fronts. Catholic Charities USA received $50 million. And then they write:

Some of the funding to Catholic Charities came as the White House bitterly battled the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops on health care reform, which the bishops said would lead to government-funded abortion and fiercely opposed, and the charity group sought to hold a middle ground between backing the bill and opposing the abortion-related measures.

Ugh, poorly written. So the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops "fiercely opposed" "health care reform." Of course, the bishops pretty much loved health care reform and were all for it, so long as it didn't include taxpayer funding of abortion. And Catholic Charities USA was one of the biggest proponents out there of health care reform. They also didn't think that such reform should include abortion, but they were huge advocates for health care reform.

And in any case, the abortion battle really heated up at the end of 2009 through March 2010. When did they get the $50 million from the Obama administration? That seems as interesting and important a detail as any.

But at least Politico is looking into the faith-based office and what's happening there. It seems many in the media have lost interest even in the procedural coverage. A few weeks ago, President Obama released some new executive orders governing the office. There wasn't much coverage but Religion News Service had a good report with the details and response from observers. And over at Religion Dispatches, Sarah Posner reacts to the Politico report as well. She's a progressive critic of the faith-based office who has applied the same tough questions for the office over the years.

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