It is probably too early to speculate how history will rate George W. Bush’s tenure as president. There will obviously be many words written about Sept. 11, the war in Iraq, tax cuts for the rich, the polarization of the country along partisan lines, the disputed 2000 election, and so on. The most problematic piece for me will be his legacy with the faith community.
President Bush has been most open about his faith–maybe even more than Jimmy Carter, who introduced the term “born again” into the world of politics. President Bush freely uses the language of Scripture and prayer in his speeches. He has commented that he feels called by God to be president. And like Esther in the Hebrew Bible, President Bush has intimated that perhaps he was appointed to be here for such a time as this.
He has without hesitation been the overwhelming favorite of the Religious Right–maybe even more so than Ronald Reagan two-and-a-half decades ago. And he has delivered far more than Reagan ever did. He has earned high praise from the conservative religious community for his opposition to stem-cell research and his two appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court.
But perhaps the biggest prize for the Religious Right was the establishment of the Office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives. The stated goal of this office was to create partnerships between government and religious groups to provide certain social services.
President Bush did not invent the idea, of course. Catholic and Lutheran Social Services have been recipients of federal money for years. But since the Welfare Reform Act signed by President Clinton in 1996, it has become increasingly common for faith groups, acting through non-sectarian ministries, to compete for and receive federal money.
But President Bush carried the practice to a new level. With the establishment of a specific office millions of dollars have flowed to faith organizations, many of which have not been careful at all about being non-sectarian.
Of course, there have been critics. John DiIulio, the first director of the Initiatives office, eventually resigned because of how little was actually being accomplished. Later second-in-command David Kuo would write a scathing critique of the Bush administration’s manipulation of the faith community. He claims that the whole idea of faith based initiatives was more about consolidating the Religious Right as a political base than it was actually doing anything to help people in need.
Interestingly, Sen. Barack Obama has promised that if elected president he will not only keep the office of Faith Based Initiatives, but expand its reach. Of course he has made it clear that funds will not be limited to Christian groups as they have for the most part under President Bush.
He has also made it clear that religious groups will not be able to use federal dollars for sectarian purposes. After all, the government should not be in the business of funding religious activity.
Which is fine as far as it goes. However, so long as the practice of using tax dollars to fund religious entities exists at all, we will continue to see the line between church and state constantly in dispute. It will be easier for the state to shirk its legitimate responsibilities to citizens, and easier for the church to drift away from its authentic calling. Sadly, this as much as anything, will be part of the Bush legacy.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.