WASHINGTON (BP)–The debate over President Bush’s plan to support faith-based organizations that provide social services has produced charges and countercharges between Christian leaders involving the race issue.
Eugene Rivers, a black pastor who has worked to alleviate social problems in Boston, said there needs to be dialogue between black and white church leaders on Bush’s proposal, which he supports. Rivers also said, however, the issue has become one of “race and class.”
“The white fundamentalists thought the faith-based office would finance their sectarian programs, which primarily serve upper middle-class suburbanites, and they are infuriated because [White Office faith-based office director] John DiIulio wants resources to go to people who are poor, black and brown,” Rivers told The Boston Globe.
Rivers’ comments came after conservative Christian leaders such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, as well as Southern Baptist ethics agency head Richard Land, had expressed concerns about the White House initiative. As a major reservation, they warned the plan could restrict the freedom of churches that accept direct funding from the government.
Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said in a written statement he agrees with Rivers’ call for dialogue between black pastors and white evangelical leaders but said that effort is poorly served when Rivers makes “strident, inaccurate and inflammatory charges about those same evangelical leaders and their motives.”
In an interview with The Globe, Land said Rivers’ comments proved “bigots come in all stripes and all colors and all professions. Like [lawyer] Johnnie Cochran with a clerical collar, Rev. Rivers plays the race card.”
To most evangelical leaders, “this is about religious freedom and a tragic history of government oversight becoming government interference and coercion, not about ‘race and class,'” Land said in his March 20 written statement. “Many evangelicals such as myself support the program being done … with our tax money by those faith-based groups who choose to participate.”
Such a program would require “appropriate constitutional safeguards,” he said.
“However, we would not participate because of our well-founded fear that it would open the door to attempted government intervention in our ministries either now or in the future, not because help would go ‘to people who are poor, black and brown,’ as Rev. Rivers inaccurately charges,” Land said. “We remain committed to reaching out and ministering to all Americans, regardless of their ethnicity, social or economic status, with our money, not the government’s.”
Robert Woodson, an African American supporter of Bush who is founder of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, told The Washington Post Rivers “is a racial divider and makes inflammatory, unfounded statements.”
After Rivers’ charges were published in The Globe March 17, a group of black church leaders, including Rivers, released two days later an open letter supporting Bush’s proposal and DiIulio. In the letter, the 19 leaders criticized the “sectarian and divisive rancor” of some religious conservatives.
“These individuals seek to deny faith-based groups in the black community the opportunity to enter into constructive, nonsectarian alliances with public institutions, in order to serve more effectively those in greatest need,” the letter said. It also said the signers were among those who have been ministering to the needy for decades with “little or no support” from “our more politically conservative co-religionists in the Fundamentalist, Pentecostal or Evangelical communities.”
Also March 19, Rivers and 14 other black religious leaders, some of them leaders of predominantly African American denominations, met with Bush. Among those attending were William Shaw, president of the National Baptist Convention, USA; Tyrone Pitts, general secretary of the Progressive National Baptist Convention; and T.D. Jakes, pastor of The Potter’s House in Dallas.
Legislation to enact Bush’s faith-based plan was expected to be introduced March 21 by Reps. J.C. Watts, R.-Okla., and Tony Hall, D.-Ohio. Senate sponsors planned to divide the proposal into two parts. Sen. Rick Santorum, R.-Pa., was expected to introduce the same day with Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D.-Ct., a bill as proposed by Bush to encourage charitable giving. Santorum plans to introduce the controversial part of the president’s plan, the provision on funding faith-based programs, known as “charitable-choice,” later this spring.
The charges by Rivers and others came after DiIulio was rebuked for attacking white evangelicals for a lack of concern for the needy.
In a March 7 speech to the National Association of Evangelicals, DiIulio said in response to concerns expressed by leaders such as Land, Falwell and Robertson, “It’s fine to fret about ‘hijacked faith,’ but to many brothers and sisters who are desperately ministering to the needs of those who the rest of us in this prosperous society have left behind, such frets would persuade more and rankle less if they were backed by real human and financial help.
“With all due respect, and in all good fellowship, predominantly white, ex-urban evangelical and national parachurch leaders should be careful not to presume to speak for any persons other than themselves and their own churches,” DiIulio said.
In response, Land said DiIulio should be “careful and cautious about caricaturing and stereotyping evangelicals. We’re not all suburban and ex-urban in either our location or our ministry orientation.
“With all due respect,” Land said, “his criticism of his critics would persuade more and rankle us a little less if he knew more about us.”
Land cited the Southern Baptist Convention’s disaster and hunger relief ministries, as well as the North American Mission Board’s World Changers program, which repairs houses across the country, and the Woman’s Missionary Union’s Christian Women’s Job Corps job-training program that helps many people enter the work force. In addition, NAMB helps underwrite almost 90 inner-city ministry centers.
Since the unveiling of Bush’s faith-based initiatives in late January, Land has called for the program to be “voucherized” as much as possible, thereby alleviating concerns about government interference with faith-based groups if it directly funds them.
The White House has expressed some support for vouchers as a solution to the controversy. In a voucher plan, the grant would go to a beneficiary who would choose what social-service agency, religious or secular, in which to use it.
In addition to maximizing the voucher alternative, other safeguards the plan must have in order to be constitutional and successful, Land says, are:
— There must always be a viable secular alternative.
— No religious group should be restricted or discriminated against in the distribution of funds.
— All government aid must go for the non-faith-based phases of the program; the ministry should fund the religious aspects, including instruction and materials.
— Religious activity must be voluntary for recipients of services provided by a faith-based entity.
He also recommended churches that choose to participate should establish a separate charity to operate the ministry.
In addition to their concerns about government interference, Falwell and Robertson expressed opposition to the funding of cults and some other religious groups.