Reverend Bush and the
Plan for Faith-Based Madness

Revolutionary Worker #1093, March 4, 2001, posted at

On January 29, George Bush issued a Presidential executive order instructing that religious organizations be given a first look whenever funds are being handed out for social services. This order established a new "White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives" (OFBCI) that will "establish policies, priorities, and objectives for the federal government's comprehensive effort to enlist, equip, enable, empower, and expand the work of faith-based and other community organizations to the extent permitted by law."

The OFBCI is supposed to coordinate changes that put religious organizations at the center of government-funded programs--like after-school programs for children, job training, drug treatment, programs for people in prisons and on parole, shelters for homeless people and battered women, food pantries for the poor, and many other social welfare operations. This OFBCI is supposed to change regulations and procedures at the federal level--and work to spread its approach to the state and local levels. And the OFBCI is supposed to develop a comprehensive government plan for these changes by this summer.

This is a plan to impose traditional religious values on the people through social programs all over the country.

As if it isn't bad enough that social programs have been drastically cut, and police are now sticking their noses into all kinds of social problems--now the floodgates are open to imposing anti-scientific theories and superstition on people in need.

There's an old communist saying that capitalism needs the hangman and the priest. And Bush the hangman is out there --recruiting the priests.

Funding Rightwing "Values"

In the past, the U.S. government contracted with major religious charities, like those associated with the Catholic and Lutheran churches, to fund social programs. But these were secular (non-religious) social welfare programs run separately from the churches themselves. The churches were officially forbidden to preach their religious beliefs at people who came for help and funding was denied to organizations that were "pervasively sectarian," meaning that their religious doctrines were "pervasive" (everywhere) in their operations.

What Bush is proposing is something very different--he is proposing to fund operations where the preaching is central to the social work. Bush has long argued that denying federal funds to "faith-based" social work is "discrimination." One study reported that nearly 90 percent of the U.S.'s 353,000 churches, synagogues and mosques operate "community programs" of some sort--but only about 1 percent receive government funding. President Bush says that when federal funds are being allocated for social programs, such religious operations will be "looked to first." He estimated that his approach will shift about $24 billion to religious groups over the next 10 years--draining funds away from secular (non-religious) social programs.

Bush's slogan of "compassionate conservativism" is a codeword taken from an extremely reactionary social doctrine developed by a fundamentalist strategist, Marvin Olasky (who has become an adviser to the new president). This doctrine is based in the idea that there is something morally wrong with people who are in need--with people who are poor, who have run away from home, who are grappling with alcoholism and other addictions, or who face violence in the family. This view insists that such people are not suffering from oppression or from the workings of an oppressive society--that people don't need social change and that they don't even necessarily need a "helping hand." What they need, above all, in the view of "compassionate conservatism," is to change themselves by adopting fundamentalist religious morality, to stop being "sinners," and to "get right with God."

Don Willett, another of Bush's advisers, described this outlook: "In their view, addiction is indicative of sinful behavior. It's at root a moral problem that requires a moral solution, as opposed to the therapeutic notion that it's a disease."

This is an approach that blames the people for their own problems. In conservative religious circles, the very idea that such things are social problems is denounced as a "theory of victimization" and a "denial of personal responsibility." The doctrine of compassionate conservatism, as explained by Marvin Olasky and embraced by George Bush, rejects the idea of changing society and argues that what people need is to "change their lives," as individuals, by adopting conservative religious values.

The results of funding social programs based on these beliefs are not hard to imagine: At federally funded social agencies dominated by conservative religious groups, abused teenage runaways might, for example, be told their problem is rebelliousness toward god and their parents--and that the solution is submission. Religious conservatives who believe divorce is a "sin" will now be able to get federal funding to tell battered women to "rebuild their marriages." Poor people picking up food at a federally funded pantry will face sermons on how poverty is caused by "sin" and the lack of "personal responsibility." People entering some government drug treatment programs would be told their problem is a weak will and sinful heart--and would be offered bible study as the solution.

State-Sponsored Cultural War

"There is a determined, many-sided effort by powerful forces within American society to put into effect an aggressively reactionary and repressive political and social agenda. Despite its fervent condemnations of "Big Government," this program actually involves a broad extension of Big Brother intrusion into people's everyday lives and a police-state battering ram smashing down supposed Constitutional rights and protections. All this has been justified--and "sanctified" --through a highly orchestrated crusade for traditional values and a professed moral righteousness represented by old-time religion."

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"It is not surprising that, in the face of changes which tend to undermine or cause upheaval within [the prevailing capitalist] system--to say nothing of direct challenges to it--the ruling class of this society more aggressively asserts the authority of its 'traditional morality' along with sharpening and more ruthlessly wielding its swords of repression."

Bob Avakian, Chairman of the RCP

A powerful political current within the U.S. ruling class wants to aggressively reverse many of the cultural and ideological changes in society that are loosely associated with "the '60s." They have openly called for "cultural war" on the independence of women, the secularization of education and public life, the breakdown of the traditional male-dominated nuclear family, the spread of sex education, the legality of abortion and birth control, the acceptance of unmarried sex, the decline of mindless patriotism and much more. With highly placed backing, the Religious Right has long pushed for a massive "revival" in the U.S.--a reactionary cultural and ideological wave sweeping over society. They have been deeply frustrated when political events, like the impeachment attack on Bill Clinton, reveal that millions of people distrust and resist them.

And so now we find political forces who claim they are against "big government" proposing to have a massive government funding of conservative religious evangelism--in which preachers who urge so-called "sinners" to be "born again" are funded as social workers. It is worth noting, in passing, that this approach to so-called "faith-based social programs" (like so many other proposals of the Religious Right) got its foothold in public policy with support from Democratic politicians. In 1996, the conservative Republican Senator John Ashcroft proposed federal funding of religious programs during the slashing of federal welfare--and Clinton soon signed an early version of this approach (then called "Charitable Choice") into law. Shortly after this, then-governor George W. Bush developed his prototype program that funded religious-based social programs in Texas.

While Bush's new Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives plans to hand over social programs to religious forces, a parallel plan is being prepared by the White House for education--that would take federal tax funds for public schools and hand them over to private (and largely religious) school systems using so-called "vouchers." After offering up the poor, homeless, runaways, addicted and battered people (and billions of social welfare dollars) to conservative religious forces, the Bush administration will follow up by proposing to hand over the minds of millions of children to these same forces (along with the billions of federal dollars intended for their education).

This is a plan for remaking the cultural landscape of the U.S. by shifting massive government funds into the hands of churches. It would strengthen conservative religion within the culture. And, at the same time, it would also strengthen the role of rightwing operatives and the ruling class state apparatus within the churches.

Ayatollahs Flying Under the Radar

"I want to be invisible. I do guerrilla warfare. I paint my face and travel at night. You don't know it's over until you're in a body bag."

Ralph Reed, leader of the religious right

"Our crowd needs to get into the battle, keep their mouths shut and help this man win."

Rev. Jerry Falwell at the
Republican National Convention 2000

It is pretty obvious to everyone that the White House plans for "church state partnerships" run directly against the established legal notions of "separation of church and state." To deal with this legal and constitutional problem, Bush and his allies of the Religious Right have continued their now well-developed division of labor.

Many on the Religious Right openly argue that the doctrine of "separation of church and state" should be overturned, that the reactionary values (and policies) of rightwing Christianity should be imposed on everyone. Meanwhile, Bush has argued that this funding of religious programs will not violate the "separation of church and state" and should be upheld by the federal courts.

Bush claims, for example, that his "faith-based initiatives" will only give federal money to the non-religious part of these social programs. But since religious preaching, bible study and conversion will now be encouraged throughout such programs, and will be accepted as the central component of many programs--Bush's claims are double-talk.

Bush's plan is a blueprint for massively funding religious evangelizing--and specifically the conservative beliefs of the most aggressively evangelical churches.

George W. Bush has repeatedly claimed that all religions will be invited to "compete for government contracts." He has promised that there would remain "secular alternatives" for people who don't want to be preached at. But the simple fact is that government officials will be choosing which churches to fund, and which ones not to fund.

White House talk of using social programs to "change lives" is a code word for the "born again" conversion process of fundamentalist Christian movements, which is what the White House intends to fund. Bush is, personally, a conservative Christian who has argued that god doesn't let Jews into heaven. And Bush tells people that he was personally called by god to run for president.

The Bush White House has already started making lists of those churches which will not be eligible for federal funding--starting with the Nation of Islam and the pagan Wicca movement. As for the promise of "secular alternatives"--no one believes that the government will now fund two parallel systems of social programs. If the federal contract for a battered women's shelter in Montana is given to some Baptist church, it's likely that Native women in that area will hear their traditional beliefs denounced when they seek shelter from abuse.

The Religious Trap

Extreme and reactionary policies are being wrapped in the language of religious morality, for the simple reason that this way of presenting their programs gets over best. This can be seen in the way some liberal and reform-minded church forces have embraced Bush's plans. For example take Jim Wallis, the editor of Sojourner Magazine, whose "liberation theology" was critiqued by RCP Chairman Bob Avakian in his book Preaching from a Pulpit of Bones. Wallis says, "I didn't vote for President Bush, but I welcome the new White House office that will coordinate 'faith-based and community initiatives.' It's often those grass-roots groups that are closest to a community's problems and they are the ones that can develop the most successful solutions." Wallis argues that liberal religious groups should take the money but remain independent of government influence.

The promise of funding is a powerful pull. Preachers who have traditionally been paid through the contributions of their congregations are now offered a spot on the payroll of conservative political machines and government agencies. When Bush's government makes lists of who gets funds they will be looking to buy influential new political support, including precisely at the "grassroots."

Political strategists of the Republican Party have long argued that they need to find some way to develop a more influential foothold within oppressed communities, especially among Black people, to weaken responses within the Black community in opposition to their reactionary policies. When Bush rolled out his "faith-based initiative" in January, he showed off support from conservative Black preachers like T.D. Jakes, a leading figure within the Promise Keeper movement.

The Severe Mercies of the Religious Right

People know that the system has failed to solve all kinds of social problems. Even in a time of supposed prosperity, the government admits that 17 percent of kids live in poverty. Thirty one million people live in households that have trouble getting enough food. In 26 major cities, requests for emergency food help and homeless shelters have grown rapidly.

Bush plays on this by suggesting that religious programs would work better, and he always tells the story of how religious conversion worked for him--helping him solve drinking and other (unnamed) problems.

But in fact, the funding of conservative social programs would make many problems of poverty and addiction and abuse worse. And they would certainly not be more caring.

In a major campaign speech in Indianapolis, Bush discussed the harshness of the policies he promotes. "Sometimes the idea of compassion is dismissed as soft or sentimental," Bush said. "But those who believe this have not visited these programs....This is demanding love--at times, a severe mercy."

In Texas, where Governor Bush tried out his "faith-based" policies, Christian agencies were offered exemption from state regulation and could choose inspection by a special board made up of other Christian preachers. There were scandals involving the harsh beating, physical restraint, isolation and other cruel punishments of children and teenagers that were justified using passages from Christian scripture.

A sign of this harshness is that Bush put John J. Dilulio Jr. in charge of the White House OFBCI. Dilulio is the social theorist who whipped up a massive hype five years ago about the supposed danger of a vicious new generation of "super-predators" who (Dilulio said) were "remorseless youngsters" who needed to be identified and locked up forever. This "theory"--which was complete bullshit and appeared in an influential 1996 book Body Count edited by the notorious William Bennett--was used to jack up mandatory sentences, justify trying youths in adult court, and carry out general wholesale repression of Black and Latino youth on the street.

Saying No to This Politics of Cruelty

"Well, I say if they want to have a discussion of morality, then let's have it. And let's begin by discussing their morality. We don't need the morality of a system where a small handful controls the wealth and power and exploits the many millions whose blood and bones have literally created the world's wealth..... I also want to talk about 'personal responsibility.' This is a big theme utilized by Clinton as well as the Christian fascists to rationalize the cruelest social policies. A lot of youth I know have come up against this in a big way. They get preached to about it in school and in society generally....Now what this responsibility thing is really all about is blaming the people for the failure of bourgeois society to live up to all the promises and principles it proclaims, and in particular blaming those in the inner cities for their impoverished and oppressed conditions."

Mary Lou Greenberg, spokesperson
for the RCP New York Branch

Millions of people are hungry or homeless because they are poor. Two-thirds of those adults who seek emergency food help have jobs, and still can't feed their families! And what could be more cruel to people struggling to hold things together than to tell the world they need to show more "personal responsibility."

In many ways the conservative approach of punishment, blame and "just say no" has already been in the saddle for decades--under both Reagan Republicans and Clinton Democrats. When did any of that ever reduce the problems of drug addiction, alcoholism or AIDS? Reactionary religious forces claim that "strengthening the family" is their key project--but their conservative values of male domination over everyone within the family won't end the beating of women or the abuse of children--it will only intensify it.

Funding ever harsher, more conservative approaches solve nothing for the people--but it would strengthen some of the most repressive and reactionary forces in the society, make religious organizations into more tightly controlled instruments of government policy, and inject reactionary religious values into even more spheres of the society.

Even in those cases where the religious organizations running social services are not so extreme and reactionary, and where people in distress do get food, shelter or other help--the federal control of religious organization and government promotion of religious messages serves a sinister trend within society that is no good for the people.

There is already quite broad and outspoken opposition being expressed to Bush's faith-based initiatives in many quarters. Organizations of social workers have expressed outrage that federal funds will now go to crackpot evangelical organizations that offer bible study as a cure for addictions. Bill McColl, the spokesman of the National Association of Drug and Alcohol Counselors, said: "We've worked so long and hard to combat the stigma that substance abuse and delinquency and mental health are a symptom of a breakdown of morality, and to convince people they are an illness. This would roll us back 60 years, right back to when people thought you were an alcoholic merely because you didn't accept Jesus as your personal savior."

The Bush proposals for "faith-based initiatives" are still new and in the formative stage. Many people are not even aware of these plans, and there is considerable confusion being spread about what they would mean. All of which means: there is a tremendous need for real resistance to this among the broad masses of people.

Carl Dix, national spokesperson of the Revolutionary Communist Party, has said:

"We need to be building up determined resistance to the whole politics of cruelty, uniting people of different nationalities and from different walks of life--waging the kind of mass struggle that has begun to take place in opposition to the epidemic of police brutality, or to stop the execution of political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal. What's called for is new resistance that does not rely on the political structures, institutions, and processes that are the very means through which this overall reactionary offensive is being carried out and legitimized. We need to take matters in our own hands. We need to rely on ourselves to take truly independent political action, and break out of the bounds and terms set by the system. This is a challenge. But it's the only realistic path for fighting the system's attacks on the people."

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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