As conservatism begins to wrestle with the problem of attracting non-traditional groups to its banner in the wake of the elections of 2012, it should take a second look at President George W. Bush’s faith-based initiatives program. In recent years, our last Republican president’s “compassionate conservatism” has been in bad odor, dismissed as just a big-government pay-off scheme for evangelicals. But that certainly wasn’t its original intention, as it was being cultivated and nourished by conservative philanthropies like the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee. Here’s a speech I delivered at American University in 2006 describing the vision of the philanthropic founders of compassionate conservatism.
Grants Flow to Bush Allies on Social Issues, read the headline of Tom Edsall’s Washington Post article from March 22, 2006. Edsall’s case against the administration was that federal dollars under the faith-based initiative were in fact simply subsidizing the president’s political friends.
Thus, the latest version of liberalism’s complaint about the faith-based initiatives program: that it’s nothing more than a crass partisan ploy dreamed up by Karl Rove to appease the religious right, and to buy votes from gullible African-American and Hispanic religious leaders. As one skeptic noted in the article, the faith-base dollars are “just slush funds for conservative interest groups. . . . These organizations would not be in existence if not for the federal dollars coming through.”
The Edsall article featured a photo of the president hugging one Bishop Sedgwick Daniels, pastor of Holy Redeemer Institutional Church of God in Christ, Milwaukee’s largest African-American congregation. Holy Redeemer had received over $1.5 million in 2003 and 2004 in faith-based funding. And—clearly no coincidence, in Edsall’s view—Bishop Daniels had been a Bush delegate to the 2004 National Convention. There it is: slam-dunk evidence that the faith-based initiatives program is nothing more than political pay-off.
Or is it? As it turns out, I know something about that photograph, and the path President Bush took to reach Bishop Daniels’ church. Some attention to that story might clarify for us the thought that went into faith-based initiatives—the Founders’ intentions, so to speak—and it has little to do with partisan corruption.
I met Bishop Daniels in the mid-90s, when I was a program officer at Milwaukee’s Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. Those of you who follow the conspiratorial theories of conservative power in America will recognize the foundation’s name, because it’s frequently cited as a prime funding source for the vast right-wing conspiracy that has today kidnapped American politics.
To be sure, the foundation does indeed fund many conservative scholars and think tanks. But to me, the most interesting part of Bradley’s work was our effort to live out, in our own urban backyard, one of conservatism’s central convictions: the notion that political authority should flow away from large, centralized, remote government bureaucracies, back to local community institutions like the family, neighborhood, house of worship, the school around the corner and the small ethnic and voluntary association. Within these small, local “mediating structures,” as the sociologists describe them, Americans had traditionally reared and educated their young according to their own moral standards, provided love and care for the vulnerable, and satisfied their yearning for belonging, rootedness, and community.
According to this view, bureaucratic centralization’s chief crime was not restricting free markets. After all, markets will always figure out a way to make a buck, even, or perhaps especially, in the era of big government, as should be apparent by now. The chief problem was that, as federal agencies assumed responsibility for social and educational tasks from local government and voluntary associations, those local institutions withered and died, leaving more problems than ever unsolved, and resulting in a net increase in human misery. As Nathan Glazer summarized what he called “the limits of social policy,” “[O]ur efforts to deal with distress are themselves increasing distress.”
One long-time Bradley grantee, Robert Woodson, founder of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, argues that this dynamic has brought particular devastation to America’s low-income communities. Within his own African-American community, he notes, families, businesses, and neighborhoods had survived the worst years of segregation and Jim Crow largely intact. Only in recent decades had they gone into steep decline, as imported social science approaches displaced indigenous approaches, and as government-funded social service professionals began to shoulder aside neighborhood leaders. After all, according to the new dispensation, only trained experts know how to deal with complex, deeply rooted social problems. Neighborhood leaders can only amateurishly put Band-Aids on the symptoms, as the mantra goes. In Woodson’s pithy description of the limits of social policy, “The helping hand strikes again.”
But beneath all the rusting hulks of failed social engineering projects, Woodson argues, there are hidden wellsprings of hope. If we only know how to look, if we only have eyes to see, within America’s local-income neighborhoods there are still—in spite of the contempt and neglect of the social service experts—neighborhood leaders who are working every day to solve the problems of their own communities. And because their efforts are rooted in, and built around restoring the authority of, local community institutions—institutions through which all Americans had once tackled their problems—these leaders enjoy quiet success.
Those institutions are largely unheralded and massively underfunded, certainly by government but even by the private charitable sector. After all, they usually occupy abandoned storefronts in the most forbidding neighborhoods. They have stains on their ceiling tiles and duct tape on their industrial carpeting. They have no credentialed staff, and certainly no professional fundraisers or slick promotional brochures.
Furthermore, more often than not they are moved by a deep and compelling religious faith. They are convinced that human problems can’t be solved by social and psychological rehabilitation alone, but call instead for fundamental, spiritual transformation. Indeed, many faith-based institutions are run by inner-city volunteers who were themselves once trapped in the problems they are now helping others to overcome, in gratitude for God’s mercy, and in answer to God’s call. For them, crucifixion and resurrection are not just inspiring religious metaphors. They are lived, daily experiences—all-too-accurate descriptions of the depths of brokenness and despair they have faced, followed by the faint, hopeful glimmer of redemption.
In the early 90s, we at Bradley asked Bob Woodson to come to Milwaukee, to help us rethink our program of local grants. We had been told by all the experts that our central city, like most American urban cores, was nothing but a desolate wasteland, begging to be filled by well-paid professional service providers gingerly making their way in from the suburbs. So, we challenged Woodson, show us here, in our own empty backyard, these invisible faith-based grassroots groups that you talk so much about.
And so he did. Within weeks of his visits, we had met Bill Lock, the founder of Community Enterprises of Greater Milwaukee, a business incubator and job training center. We had met Lessie Handy, whose Professional Receptionist Institute was training women for clerical and receptionist jobs. We had met Cordelia Taylor, founder of Family House, a community-based senior-care facility whose work has now been featured by Readers’ Digest, Oprah, and the Today Show. And we met, and we provided funding for, dozens of other neighborhood leaders, who were indeed quietly and effectively doing what they considered God’s work, with no attention from the urban experts, and with no support from the local federated funders. Working with Bob Woodson, we began to develop the eyes to see what he saw—to see the fresh springs in the desert.
It was with Woodson’s eyes, then, that we came to see the work of Pastor Sedgwick Daniels. He had launched his church with eight families in 1986. (In fact, he marked the twentieth anniversary of its founding with a service conducted by Bishop T. D. Jakes.) Even by the mid-90s, Pastor Daniels had built Holy Redeemer COGIC into a congregation of several thousand in his family’s north-side neighborhood. At the heart of the church was a massive community outreach effort, featuring four schools, both public and private; a health clinic; a credit union; an assisted-living center; and job-training and counseling programs of all sorts. Other than some funding for the schools, Pastor Daniels was doing all this through the sacrificial giving of his own congregation.
As we at Bradley heard more and more about him through other trusted neighborhood sources, we went out to his church, and asked him if he might be interested in receiving a grant from us. I know that’s not usually the way foundations work. But what he was doing dovetailed perfectly with our efforts to help resuscitate the ability of local community institutions to tackle their own problems their own way. We went to him, because we simply wanted to be a part of what he was doing.
After several years of small grants for operating support, Pastor Daniels came to us with a larger request for serious capital. Next to his church was a long-abandoned warehouse, which he proposed to buy and renovate for community use. The new facility—the Mother Kathryn Daniels Conference Center for Community Empowerment and Family Reunification—officially opened in August 2004. It includes two schools, one public and one private, a Boys and Girls Club, an evening school administered by the local technical college, and a conference- and performing-arts facility. Of the $15 million price tag for the effort, Im proud to say that the Bradley Foundation contributed $1 million. This may well be the largest grant ever made by a secular American foundation to an inner-city Pentecostal church.
How President Bush himself came to embrace the idea of faith-based initiatives is another story that involves his own encounter with Bob Woodson. In the mid-90s, then-Texas governor Bush’s Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse threatened to cut off the use of food stamps by well-known faith-based recovery program Teen Challenge. Freddie Garcia, founder of San Antonio’s Victory Fellowship and an ally of Teen Challenge, teamed up with Bob Woodson to stage a protest rally in front of the Alamo. Marvin Olasky, author of The Tragedy of American Compassion and editor of the evangelical news journal World magazine, featured the rally as a cover story. TCADA’s rules were reversed by Governor Bush, but not before the governor had invited Woodson to Austin to confer about the power of grassroots groups for solving social problems.
Soon, the governor was visiting local faith-based groups around Texas, talking about the need for government to help mobilize, but not to replace, the private sector’s armies of compassion. Those visits—to the smallest, scrappiest, most overlooked groups—have continued during his presidency. As he tours the facilities, he invariably seeks out at least one young man who’s been saved from drug or alcohol dependency. He quietly tells him that he, too, has been saved from alcoholism by his faith. For President Bush, as well, crucifixion and resurrection are more than inspiring religious images.
It’s hardly an accident, then, that when Governor Bush pulled together some thinkers and writers to help him think through a social policy for his presidential bid, it should have included Bob Woodson, Marvin Olasky, and Steve Goldsmith, as well as other prominent theorists of faith-bases social services, whose work had been funded at various points by the Bradley Foundation.
Shortly after the election of 2000, when the new Bush administration called Bradley for advice about potential site visits in Milwaukee, we unhesitatingly pointed them to Holy Redeemer. Not because by-then-Bishop Sedgwick Daniels was a Republican. No one would be so suicidal as to be a Republican in central city Milwaukee. Rather, it was because no single institution better illustrated the themes of the Administrations faith-based initiative than Holy Redeemer.
The picture Tom Edsall attached to his article last month was taken on the occasion of that visit by the president to Holy Redeemer in July 2002—a full year before a single federal dollar had flowed to the church’s efforts, and two years before Bishop Daniels served as a delegate to the Republican convention of 2004.
Perhaps Im being naïve, but I would like to think that a handful of federal grants matters less to Bishop Daniels than the fact that the President of the United States had come to his neighborhood, and held him up for the nation to see as an exemplar of one of the central convictions of his administration—that local faith-based leaders know how to tackle problems that have baffled the federal social service experts, and deserve consideration for federal funding. Without doubt, the argument cited by Tom Edsall that “these groups would not be in existence were it not for federal funds” is, in the case of Bishop Daniels, a gross misunderstanding and a profound insult.
To be sure, the subsequent legislative fate of the faith-based initiative is not a pretty picture, and as even Edsall had to be admit, the portion of federal spending it redirected to faith-based groups is paltry, in the context of the overall federal budget. But I think that the larger idea—the founders’ intention—behind the faith-based initiative lives on, and may yet have a significant effect on American politics.
For the faith-based initiative was, in a larger sense, an effort by our political system to come to grips with an extraordinary and wholly unexpected resurgence of spiritual energy in America over the past decade. The experts not so long ago had assured us that, in the words of theologian Harvey Cox, the heavenly city would soon be replaced by the secular city. But by 1994, in his book Fire From Heaven, Cox had to admit that he had been wrong. The explosion of Pentecostalism around the world, and especially among America’s urban minorities, he argued, had given the lie to the secularization thesis.
By economic interest and historical experience, these minorities had long found a home within liberalism and the Democratic party. So it came as no surprise that during the election of 2000, Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore formulated his own plan to accommodate their interest in faith-based social services. But the fit between reenergized spirituality and liberalism has not been an easy one.
For one thing, at the heart of liberalism is the sprawling constellation of social-service-delivery professions. Indeed, between education and government service, these professions supply much of the funding and energy for modern liberal politics. But their professional status derives from training and credentialing in deeply secular social sciences. They dont take kindly to the suggestion that spiritual transformation may be an adequate substitute for social and psychological rehabilitation. And they certainly dont relish the prospect of losing jobs and funding to faith-based programs.
More deeply, the notion of God presents a challenge, shall we say, for the liberal intelligentsia. Not because theyre particularly atheistic, but rather because cutting edge moral and philosophical doctrines raise serious questions about any form of transcendent truth. Prominent philosopher of the left Richard Rorty, for instance, applauds liberal forebears John Dewey and Walt Whitman for arguing that “there is no need to be curious about God because there is no standard, not even a divine one, against which the decisions of free people can be measured.” Instead, they viewed America as “an opportunity to see ultimate significance in a finite, human, historical project rather than in something eternal and nonhuman.”
Needless to say, the idea of a faith-based initiative fits poorly in a world where faith as such is viewed as delusional. But that view is common on university campuses and in the intellectual salons of the left. Jim Wallis, a prominent, if lonely, progressive spiritual leader, tells the story of a young man who approached him after a talk at a Boston bookstore. He told Wallis, “I’m gay, and I want to thank you for making me feel welcome tonight. But you know, it’s easier to come out being gay in Boston than it is coming out as religious in the Democratic Party.”
None of this is to suggest that there aren’t in fact millions of deeply faithful people within the Democratic party. It is to say, however, that it’s hard to imagine a Democratic presidential candidate insisting that her favorite political thinker is Jesus Christ, as did President Bush, without automatically disqualifying herself from contention for the party’s nomination. And it is to say that there are in fact millions fewer serious religious voters within the Democratic party since the exodus of the Northern, blue-collar, Catholic ethnics and Southern Protestants in the wake of the turmoil of the 60s. While that had something to do with race and economics, it had also to do with the fact that this was precisely the time during which Democratic liberalism openly embraced Rorty’s idea that “there is no standard, not even a divine one” to guide our politics and morals.
The fact that millions of those Southern Protestant and Northern Catholic voters flooded into the GOP significantly altered the religious tenor of that party, of course. The genteel, understated Protestantism of George Bush the father gave way to the far more enthusiastic evangelical Protestantism of George Bush the son. This new religious enthusiasm within conservatism has been fed by the rise of the suburban megachurch—the latest evidentiary burden against the secularization thesis. Within its gleaming glass walls, the megachurch seeks to rebuild a semblance of the tightly knit, moral community that had once characterized the American neighborhood. Significantly, many of these churches are racially diverse, and take seriously Christ’s injunction to care for the poor, through aggressive ministries to low-income communities.
All these factors built a new conservatism that is highly receptive to the Pentecostalism of central city leaders like Bishop Daniels. This affinity may become most visible around highly charged cultural issues like gay marriage and abortion. But that should not obscure the deeper point that conservatives share with Bishop Daniels an unembarrassed readiness to seek a “divine standard” against which our political and moral decisions should be measured. To be sure, some agnostic libertarians are to be found within the conservative intellectual leadership. But they are a distinct and increasingly frustrated minority. In a way that is simply unimaginable in liberal publications, the pages of conservatism’s chief intellectual journals are filled with serious reflections about the nature of God, His action in the world, and His relationship to the American republic.
Whether conservatism will finally benefit more than liberalism from the flow of new spiritual energies into American politics is still very much an open question, of course. The Administration’s faith-based initiative was a somewhat disappointing opening gambit. We will no doubt soon see if liberalism can do better. Certainly it will have an easier time navigating the crosscurrents of race, economics, and history that bedeviled the faith-based initiative.
But if I haven’t made this clear yet, let me do so now. I want Bishop Sedgwick Daniels at my side within the conservative movement. Not just because it will improve our electoral fortunes—though it will—but rather, because it will improve the movement itself. The danger of seeking after God’s blessing is that we occasionally persuade ourselves that we have earned it, or worse, deserved it. As critics have pointed out, conservative religious figures are from time to time guilty of that presumption—of concluding that their comfort is a sign of God’s pleasure. As a result, conservatism occasionally presents a face that is self-righteous and intolerant.
The faith of leaders like Bishop Daniels and Bob Woodson, however, seldom ventures far from a firmly rooted understanding of the brokenness of the world, of the reality of crucifixion and the desperate need for resurrection. It is a faith that is earthy, modest, and realistic. It would never permit us to forget our obligation to care for the least of these. For in the final analysis, they would remind us, each of us, from the president on down, is the alcoholic taking his first faltering steps to sobriety in the loving arms of the storefront faith community and of the God it incarnates. With that humbling, holy truth at its heart, conservatism could not fail to be a blessing to America.