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Will Democrats Keep the Faith?

By Tom Bevan

Last Monday was the sixth anniversary of the creation of the White House Office of Faith-Based & Community Initiatives (FBCI), the cornerstone of President Bush's 2000 campaign promise to govern as a "compassionate conservative." As we look ahead to the 2008 Presidential race that is already well under way, the FBCI poses a very interesting dilemma for the current field of Democrats vying to succeed President Bush: if elected, will they keep the program in place or kill it?

On one hand, there's a decent argument to be made for doing away with the FBCI. From the outset, the FBCI has endured sustained criticism from both the left and the right (most recently in David Kuo's book last year) that it has always been more interested in driving politics than policy. Critics say the FBCI was designed to be a pork-barrel pipeline to energize the evangelical community on behalf the administration, rather than a serious effort at expanding or improving the efficacy of community-based social services.

Furthermore, the office hasn't achieved much prominence from a programmatic point of view. In fact, a vast majority of Americans would be hard pressed to name a single program or policy initiative that the FBCI has been involved with since it was created. It's hard to see the public missing something it wasn't aware of to begin with.

Finally, court cases in the news in recent weeks have revived questions about prosthyletizing by faith-based organizations receiving federal funding. On January 17, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously upheld a lower court ruling stripping federal funding from Teen Ranch, a Christian ministry for abused children, after the court held that the organization had been inserting "overtly religious instruction and activity into its treatment regimen."

Because the White House Office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives was created through Executive Order after efforts to legislate it into existence in 2000 failed amid Congressional concerns that certain provisions violated federal anti-discrimination statutes, the next President can abolish it (and the dozen or so corresponding offices spread throughout the federal government) with the stroke of a pen.

Given that the largely secular, activist base of the Democratic party remains suspicious of the FBCI's motives and the Constitutionality of its methods, they'd probably like nothing more than to see their Presidential hopefuls commit to declaring Bush's experiment in "compassionate conservatism" officially dead. But will any major Democratic candidate running for President make that commitment? Don't count on it.

One reason is because while the FBCI hasn't made huge news in changing policies, it has had a good deal of success in changing attitudes. Seven years ago the idea of letting faith-based organizations compete for federal funds to provide community-based services was seen as new and somewhat controversial. Now it's a notion widely accepted by the general public.

Another reason is that in the aftermath of disappointing losses in 2002 and 2004, Democrats have been grappling with the issue of faith and of finding ways to connect with culturally conservative voters. Some, like Hillary Clinton, have found supporting the FBCI one way of making that connection. In January, 2005, Mrs. Clinton told a crowd of 500 at a fundraiser supporting a Boston-area faith based organization that "there is no contradiction between support for faith-based initiatives and upholding our Constitutional principles."

John Edwards and Barack Obama have made talk of faith and values a large part of their campaigns, though they've remained largely silent on the FBCI. In 2004, Edwards called President Bush's faith-based initiatives "a mistake" and said any program for delivering community services must be done in "a manner consistent with the First Amendment." Obama has made vague statements about finding a "sense of proportion" between faith and government.

But despite the Democratic base's antipathy toward the FBCI and any personal misgivings, will Clinton, Edwards or Obama have the political nerve to commit to killing it heading into a competitive general election?

Ironically, if the White House Office of Faith-Based & Community Initiatives was spawned out of political considerations, as some critics say, those same political considerations might be what save it under a future Democratic administration - thereby cementing the FBCI as George W. Bush's biggest domestic legacy.

Even more ironic, perhaps, is that if given the proper amount of amount of attention and cultivation under a Democratic administration, the FBCI could provide a remarkable opportunity for the Democratic party to open a dialogue with and reclaim support among the evangelical community. In other words, as a political tool the FBCI could wind up being equally as valuable - if not more so - to a future Democratic administration as it was for George W. Bush.

Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics. Email:

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