The Good Society 12.1 (2003) 1-10
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A Civil Society Approach
Jeffrey C. Issac
On January 29, 2001, President George W. Bush signed two Executive Orders. The first created a White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. The second established centers in five federal departments—Justice, Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, Labor, and Education—charged with the responsibility of clearing away what Bush called "bureaucratic barriers" that hinder the involvement of private faith-based organizations in the work of these agencies. The purpose of these orders was, in his words, "to invigorate the spirit of involvement and citizenship" by promoting public solutions that "look first to faith-based programs and community groups." 1 In taking these actions, Bush took the first step in codifying the philosophy of "compassionate conservatism" that he had enunciated throughout his Presidential campaign, and that he also sought to apply in his tenure as Governor of Texas. While these steps involved no new legislation—and while the Bush administration has itself hedged about when and if it might seek new legislation to promote these objectives—conservative members of Congress wasted no time in proposing new legislation to expand the delivery of social services by means of publicly-supported faith-based initiatives. 2
The political response to these events has been interesting. On the right, some have enthusiastically applauded these efforts to promote the public role of churches and religiously-based institutions. On the left, many have denounced such efforts as threats to the constitutional principle of church-state separation and as efforts to promote sectarianism in public life. And yet there have also been a range of more nuanced and, quite frankly, unpredictable responses. From the right, for example, Marvin Olasky—the chief source of Bush's ideas about faith-based initiatives—joined with Michael Horowitz of the Hudson Institute to urge caution and to criticize the idea of directly financing religious institutions, on the grounds that direct federal grants might "exert strong and consistent pressure on religious groups to dilute or eliminate the very component of their programs that in their view are essential to their success." 3 Similar caution has been urged by other conservatives, from the Reverend Pat Robertson to Kate O'Bierne of National Review. And from the left, some have voiced cautious support for the initiative, noting that such efforts promise to help the poor by helping worthwhile associations in civil society. Thus Jim Wallis, the liberal Christian founder of Sojourners and leader of A Call to Action, wrote in the New York Times that "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." And in the Nation, Dennis R. Hoover declared "Yes to Charitable Choice." 4
In what follows I will take these less predictable responses as a point of departure, and develop a set of theses about the faith-based initiative idea. My basic point is this: the faith-based initiative idea is deeply ideological, but in a complex rather than a simple way. While it does seek to bring faith into the public realm in a visible way—long a goal of the Religious Right—it is not [End Page 1] [Begin Page 4] reducible to a tactic of the Religious Right. While it poses some important constitutional questions, and while it will be necessary for some of these questions to be worked out in the courts, it is not about the public establishment of religion. Furthermore, while it embodies certain anti-statist prejudices that should make liberals and those farther to the left blanch, the faith-based initiative idea should not be lightly dismissed, for it represents in some ways a promising "civil society" approach to public policy in a post-liberal, post-welfare state political moment.
The Bush policies are designed to use the government—federal, state, and local—to assist voluntary...