WASHINGTON (BP)–President Bush told a group of religious leaders that his administration allocated $2 billion to faith-based organizations last year to assist in their work of showing compassion toward Americans in need.
“No matter what your faith is, we’re united in the conviction that to whom much is given, much is expected,” Bush said at the White House Faith-Based and Community Initiatives Leadership Conference.
With the prosperity Americans enjoy comes “an obligation to reach out to brothers and sisters who hurt,” the president told the gathering at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington March 1.
The Bush administration reported that $2 billion in competitive grants across seven federal agencies was awarded to faith-based organizations in 2004, amounting to 10.3 percent of the total funding awarded. In 2003, just $1.17 billion was awarded in grants to faith-based groups across five agencies.
The number of first-time faith-based grantees totaled 331 in 2004, representing a 20 percent increase over the previous year, the White House said. The Department of Housing and Human Services alone saw an 88 percent increase in the number of awards to faith-based organizations since 2002 — from 483 to 908.
One of the tests of character for America, the president said, is how the nation treats its weakest citizens, and part of the test is to understand the limitations of government.
“When I think about government, I think about law and justice. I really don’t think about love,” Bush said. “Government has got to find ways to empower those whose mission is based upon love in order to help those who need love find love in society.”
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, attended the conference and was one of about a dozen religious leaders who met with Bush at the hotel before the speech.
“It was crystal clear to anyone in the room that this is a critical issue for the president and there is no more important domestic policy issue than the faith-based initiative, which will further empower the armies of compassion to help alleviate suffering and bring hope to those at the margins of American society,” Land told Baptist Press.
Bush said his goal over the next four years is to change the culture permanently so that faith-based and community-based organizations will be welcomed into the grant-making process of government. He noted that 10 federal agencies now have faith-based offices, and three of those were added last year.
The president also reiterated that he is most interested in results, not in whether an organization claims a particular religion. The multiplication of new faith-based groups, particularly small groups that can achieve significant results, is an important objective, he said.
“What I want to know is, ‘Are we helping increase the number of new groups, small groups, first-time appliers for federal money? Are we doing that? Are we getting beyond those great, courageous faith-based programs that have been providing help for a long period of time? Are we reaching beyond the Salvation Army or the Catholic Charities, the fantastic pillars of the faith-based program?'” Bush said. “And the answer is, ‘We are.'”
During his speech, Bush set forth four steps his administration will take to continue building a culture of compassion in the United States. The first, he said, is to expand individual choice so that those in need can decide which program can help them best. The second step is to ensure that state and local agencies do not discriminate against faith-based and community-based programs when distributing federal money.
The third step, Bush said, is to urge Congress to pass charitable choice legislation, which guarantees that faith-based organizations are treated equally when competing for government funds and protects their religious independence in hiring workers. The fourth step is to rid the federal tax code of provisions that can discourage charitable giving.
“I was delighted in listening to the president’s speech to see that he has addressed many of the concerns that we, among others, have expressed to the administration,” Land said. “For instance, the White House is personalizing assistance in terms of maximizing the use of vouchers to empower people to select for themselves the type of faith-based program they want to use if they choose a faith-based alternative.”
Land was also pleased that Bush made clear no American would be obligated to turn to a faith-based organization for help — a secular choice would still be available.
“The president also reiterated that a faith-based group that is receiving government funds cannot turn away anyone who seeks that service,” Land noted.
“Using the rather dramatic example of his personal history, he said that a Methodist faith-based program providing services to alcoholics cannot take just Methodist drunks. They must be open to all drunks — which drew considerable laughter,” Land said, realizing Bush is a Methodist and has said he used to drink too much.
In related news, the House of Representatives approved March 2 a measure to protect the hiring rights of faith-based organizations as part of the Job Training Improvement Act. The House voted 224-200 for the bill’s passage. A section in the legislation exempts faith-based providers involved in job training from nondiscrimination requirements, thereby allowing them to consider religion in their hiring.
With reporting by Tom Strode.