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Faith, Hope, and Philanthropy: The President's Initiative


On July 22, 1999, as part of his campaign to win the Republican Party's nomination for president, George W. Bush outlined a blueprint for "Compassionate Conservatism." He proposed that the federal government provide funds to local and faith-based organizations that have developed successful social-services programs. He also advocated allowing taxpayers who do not itemize on their federal income tax returns to take charitable deductions.
As president, Bush moved swiftly to promote these goals. On January 29, 2001, only nine days after his inauguration, he signed two executive orders supporting his campaign proposals. The first instructed the attorney general and the secretaries of Education, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, and Labor to establish Centers for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in their agencies. The second order created the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Bush appointed University of Pennsylvania professor John J. DiIulio, Jr. head of the new office.

"It is one of the great goals of my administration to invigorate the spirit of involvement and citizenship," the president explained before he signed the documents. "We will encourage faith-based and community programs without changing their mission. We will help all in their work to change hearts while keeping a commitment to pluralism."

He continued:

Government will never be replaced by charities and community groups. Yet when we see social needs in America, my administration will look first to faith-based programs and community groups, which have proven their power to save and change lives. We will not fund the religious activities of any group, but when people of faith provide social services, we will not discriminate against them.

As long as there are secular alternatives, faith-based charities should be able to compete for funding on an equal basis, and in a manner that does not cause them to sacrifice their mission.
The following day, Bush forwarded to Congress his plan for "Rallying the Armies of Compassion."

The President's Plan

The president proposed that the federal government work in partnership with faith-based and community organizations. Bush outlined three courses of action:

  1. Eliminate federal barriers impeding the work of effective faith-based and community-serving programs;
  2. Stimulate increased private giving to nonprofits, faith-based programs, and community groups; and
  3. Create pilot partnerships between the federal government and faith-based or community organizations.

The new White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives would lead the efforts in the first area. DiIulio and his colleagues would focus on identifying such barriers, proposing legislative and regulatory changes to eliminate them, coordinating new government initiatives, working with the Centers for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, and working with the Corporation for National Service.

The president also encouraged states to create their own offices of faith-based and community initiatives. Bush proposed making matching federal funds available to the states for this purpose.

As a third means to eliminate impediments, the president called for expanding charitable choice. Adopted as part of welfare reform in 1996, charitable choice enables faith-based organizations (the GuideStar database lists 116,000) to compete with secular groups for government contracts to provide specific social services. "Rallying the Armies of Compassion" advocated extending charitable choice to more programs.

To increase private giving, Bush again proposed allowing nonitemizers to take charitable deductions from their federal income tax. He also advocated limiting liability for corporations that make in-kind donations to nonprofits, faith-based programs, and community groups; enabling individuals over the age of 59 to make charitable contributions with funds from their IRAs without paying taxes on the withdrawals; federal support for a charitable state tax credit; raising the cap on corporate charitable deductions from 10 percent to 15 percent; and creating a compassion capital fund to finance technical assistance and start-up costs for faith-based and community organizations.

Finally, the president called specifically for pilot programs to help the children of prisoners, prepare inmates for release from prison, support maternity group homes, and extend after-school opportunities for low-income children. These initiatives would test and develop the federal government's partnerships with faith-based and community organizations.

Reactions to the Proposal 

Responses to the president's initiative have ranged from enthusiastic support to vehement opposition. Most of the debate has focused on charitable choice.

Proponents of the plan maintain that:

  • Community and faith-based organizations are already serving the needy, often with great success.
  • Providing federal funds to faith-based organizations is not a new idea; Bush's proposal merely expands charitable choice to more kinds of social services.
  • Because secular alternatives to faith-based programs will be available, no one will be forced to accept religious teachings in order to receive assistance.
  • The initiative will level the playing field, enabling faith-based organizations to compete for federal funds on an equal basis with secular groups, thereby eliminating discrimination against faith-based groups.
  • Experience has shown that faith-based organizations do not discriminate against recipients in providing their services.
  • The initiative is structured to protect the rights of both the organizations and those who receive services.
  • The plan will help motivate individuals in need and thus counterbalance low morale, a factor that contributes to poverty.
  • The initiative will provide new opportunities for groups that traditionally have not been involved in government contracts to work in partnership with the government.

Opponents charge that the president's plan will:

  • Violate the First Amendment provision separating church and state.
  • Fund discrimination by allowing organizations that employ fewer than 15 people to use religion as a criterion for employment.
  • Fund discrimination by permitting faith-based groups to deny service to people who do not embrace particular religious beliefs or certain lifestyles.
  • Enmesh faith-based organizations in government regulation or create a double standard by exempting faith-based organizations from certain regulations while requiring secular organizations to comply with them.
  • Favor organizations that are associated with mainstream religions or fund organizations outside the mainstream that the critics find objectionable.
  • Fund religious coercion by permitting faith-based organizations to force religious teachings on people in need as a condition of their obtaining assistance.
  • Enable government to dictate what faith-based organizations can and cannot do or make faith-based groups hesitate to speak out in opposition to government policies for fear of losing funding.
  • Create more bureaucracy or a whole new bureaucracy, rather than freeing faith-based and community organizations from red tape.
  • Make faith-based organizations dependent on government funds.
  • Expose faith-based groups to the risk of litigation.
  • Spur competition between faith-based groups and by extension create religious strife.
  • Merely increase competition for federal funds already devoted to social welfare, rather than make additional money available for these programs.
  • Fail to address the causes of poverty.
  • Reduce the impetus for government to address social issues.
  • Overburden faith-based organizations by expecting them to accomplish more than they can, even with federal funds.

Foes also note that no empirical evidence exists indicating that faith-based organizations are more effective at solving social problems than other groups.

In some cases, opinions about the initiative vary widely within particular groups. Call to Renewal, a group of Christian organizations dedicated to fighting poverty, supports it. Christian Coalition head Pat Robertson does not, nor does the Reverend Jerry Falwell. Where the Reverend Reginald Jackson, executive director of the Black Ministers Council of New Jersey, finds the proposal "a very good move," Black Congressional Caucus member Bobby Scott (D-Va.) believes it promotes discrimination. "If you can get a pass on religious discrimination, you can get a pass on any kind of discrimination," he contends.

The Initiative in Washington 

The criticism from religious conservatives, who had supported Bush's run for office, reportedly surprised the administration. On March 14, however, the president asserted, "The reports about our charitable choice legislation not going full steam ahead [are] just simply not true." The initiative, he maintained, was "moving on a timetable that we're comfortable with."

The public dialogue led one of the plan's key supporters, Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), to recommend postponing Senate action on charitable choice while going forward with the tax changes intended to stimulate charitable giving. The White House agreed.

On March 21, Santorum introduced the Savings Opportunity and Charitable Giving Act of 2001 (S. 592) in the Senate. The bill included provisions allowing nonitemizers to take charitable deductions, enabling IRA holders to make tax-free charitable contributions from their IRAs, and extending "special rule" tax deductions to all business taxpayers making food donations. Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), Al Gore's running mate in the recent presidential election, was the bill's other primary sponsor.

Lieberman and Santorum had appeared with Bush when the president launched his initiative on January 30. Lieberman, however, had made it clear that he could not support the charitable choice proposal until the constitutional and discrimination issues were resolved. He had publicly posed several specific questions about the program, explaining at one point, "This is one case where, if you'll allow me to put it this way, the devil really is in the details."

Nonetheless, when the Savings Opportunity and Charitable Giving Act was submitted to the Senate, Lieberman contended that the president's overall plan had more support than might be readily apparent. Santorum speculated that he and Lieberman would introduce a charitable choice bill in a couple of months.

Proponents in the House of Representatives took a different approach. On March 29, Representatives J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) and Tony Hall (D-Ohio) and Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) introduced the Community Solutions Act of 2001 (H.R. 7) in the House. In addition to the tax provisions found in the Senate bill, the Community Solutions Act included language expanding charitable choice.

On April 23, Congress received a petition advocating separation of church and state. It was signed by 850 religious leaders. The following day, a House Judiciary subcommittee began hearings on the Community Solutions Act. Discussion quickly divided along party lines, with Republicans supporting the initiative and Democrats opposing it.

April 25 found House and Senate Republicans attending a summit intended to show support for the president's plan. Some 400 invited guests, mostly African-American clergy whose churches were already receiving government funds, also participated.

The legislators included the president's proposals for stimulating charitable giving in a larger tax-reform package. At the end of May, however, the White House consented to removing those measures in order to get the rest of the bill, which provided for a $1.35 trillion tax cut, adopted.

Opponents also attacked the charitable choice components of other legislation. In April, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), a cosponsor of the Drug Abuse Education, Prevention, and Treatment Act, complained about the inclusion of charitable choice in that bill. Around the same time, reports noted that the ranking minority member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, George Miller (D-Calif.), wanted charitable choice removed from the No Child Left Behind Act.

Although a June Supreme Court decision permitting a Christian children's club to meet at a New York state school may improve the legal climate for charitable choice, the legislative forecast is less bright. Senator James Jeffords's (I-Vt.) defection from the Republican Party has given Democrats control of the Senate, causing some political pundits to predict the demise of charitable choice.

The president and his allies are not giving up, however. In May, Michael Joyce, head of the conservative Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, announced that he was establishing a new organization in Washington, D.C., to support the president's initiative. On June 5, Senator Santorum stated, "If we are serious about battling poverty, we must not discriminate against faith-based groups merely because of their religious character."

Bush in particular has taken up the standard. On several occasions in May and June, he urged support not only for his program but also for volunteering and charitable corporate giving in general. In May, he announced that in the fall the White House would sponsor a summit where corporate and philanthropic leaders can discuss ways to help both secular and religious groups.

Although the Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings on the faith-based initiative in mid-June, there is no indication when, if ever, the issue will reach the Senate floor. The House Ways and Means Committee also heard testimony on the Community Solutions Act in June. On June 21, however, House majority leader Dick Armey speculated that the legislation would not be debated in the House until after the July 4 recess. In the meantime, the administration is urging House Republicans to replace the bill's charitable choice provisions with less sweeping language that Congress has adopted in the past.

Alternatives to Charitable Choice 

Some supporters of the president's initiative have urged the administration and Congress to focus on the tax provisions of Bush's plan. On March 25, YMCA executive director Kenneth Gladish told the House Ways and Means Committee, "Our tax code is the most powerful tool available to send a message that we, as Americans, highly value and support charitable giving, but today this message goes only out to the 30 percent of taxpayers who itemize their deductions."

Writing in the Christian Science Monitor, Sara E. Meléndez, president and CEO of Independent Sector, and Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of the Churches of Christ of the USA, echoed Gladish's words. In testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee in June, Meléndez also advocated allowing IRA holders to make untaxed charitable contributions from their accounts.

Other proponents have suggested that the government provide vouchers to individuals in need. Each recipient would use the vouchers to pay for social services, deciding for him- or herself whether to seek assistance from a secular or faith-based organization. John DiIulio terms vouchers the "more appropriate" way for faith-based organizations to receive federal funds.

Actions Outside Washington 

Bush's proposals have stimulated several states to act on charitable choice. Virginia officials have encouraged faith-based organizations to compete for state funds. A Florida state representative proposed that each state agency be required to develop procedures for providing money to faith-based organizations. In California, a hate-crimes bill called for funding faith-based as well as secular programs, and in Ohio, the legislature created a task force to study ways to get state and federal money to religious and secular social-service organizations.

Oklahoma's Office of Faith-Based Liaison surveyed 7,000 churches, congregations, synagogues, mosques, and community outreach ministries in the state. Barely 1 percent of the 749 organizations that responded had known about charitable choice before the survey, and only 0.6 percent reported that they were already receiving federal funds. An overwhelming 75 percent said they would work in partnership with the government to provide social services, and 68 percent indicated that they would accept federal money.

In May, Oklahoma governor Frank Keating signed an executive order instructing the appropriate state agencies to implement charitable choice. The state also sponsored two "Faithlinks" conferences to teach Oklahoma faith-based organizations how to compete for federal grants.

Even local governments are getting in on the act. Rather than hire two new employees, Cincinnati, Ohio, leaders decided to contract with faith-based or nonprofit organizations to provide maintenance at city parks and playgrounds.


Although the fate of the president's proposal remains in doubt, his initiative has brought philanthropy—particularly secular and religious social-service organizations—into the limelight. Perhaps, as House Judiciary chairman F. James Sensenbrenner, Jr. (R-Wis.) told Vice President Dick Cheney, the administration did indeed fail to do "its homework broadening its base so that it had broad bipartisan support" for the plan. Or perhaps Murray Friedman of Temple University is right when he says that the debate merely reflects "the growing pains of a new idea."

Time will tell.


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suzanne-coffman-150x150.jpgThe preceding post is by Suzanne Coffman, GuideStar’s editorial director. See more of Suzanne’s sector findings and musings on philanthropy here on our blog. 
Topics: Charity Donations