John J. DiIulio Jr., the onetime head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, really loves faith-based charities. He must, since he promises the post-tax royalties from “ Godly Republic : A Centrist Blueprint for America ’s Faith-Based Future” to no fewer than a dozen of them (no mention of any advance fee).
Exactly why DiIulio feels this way is a little less clear. He tells us repeatedly—and with the refreshing candor that is his trademark—that empirical evidence has not convincingly shown social programs run by religious institutions to be any more successful at getting people off drugs or into jobs than their secular counterparts. Religion, DiIulio emphasizes, is a good thing, offering lots of social and even health benefits. But the strongest policy argument he advances for religion-based social programs is that religious organizations do an especially good job of motivating volunteers.
It may be true that faith-based charities perform no better or worse than secular do-gooders, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that the federal government should be paying for them. DiIulio, however, has devoted the last decade or so of his unusually high-profile academic and policy career to advocating such financing. He does not base his claims on his personal religious faith; his position is that religious charities should be on a level playing field with nonreligious organizations when it comes to gaining access to government money. Anything less than equality amounts to discrimination.
Why? DiIulio points out that the First Amendment to the United States Constitution grants religion special protection. But it also singles religion out for a special disability—the prohibition on being established. This ban limits the ways that government may support religious activities and institutions. So backing George W. Bush’s faith-based initiative depends on making two arguments: first, that the Constitution can be interpreted to permit such support; and second, that the support is actually desirable.
According to DiIulio, Bush’s faith-based initiative failed because the White House lost the first argument. Some academics and politicians and many in the news media, he says, mistakenly impugned the constitutionality of its program. This probably explains why so many pages of his book are devoted to interpreting the history and legal doctrine surrounding the establishment clause, and so many more to the particular circumstances that surround various faith-based initiatives, from mentoring programs like Amachi in his beloved Philadelphia (motto: “People of faith, mentoring children of promise”) to Charles W. Colson’s Prison Fellowship Ministries.
The result is not a narrative but a series of chapters organized around the refutation of misperceptions that DiIulio labels myths. Derived from a lecture given at Berkeley , “GodlyRepublic ” is long on studies by DiIulio’s former graduate students at the UniversityofPennsylvaniaand short on systematic argument. DiIulio’s talent for phrase-making—in the 1990s he coined the label “superpredator,” used by some to justify life sentences for repeat offenders—is on display throughout. DiIulio has some lively complaints about the politics-as-usual practices he encountered in the White House, but those looking for another Bush insider tell-all will be sorely disappointed. DiIulio is sorry he ever called Karl Rove and his team “Mayberry Machiavellis.” And it is with fondness that he recalls the president telling him, “Big John, let’s make this work.”
Since DiIulio believes the failure of the faith-based program turned on the mistaken perception of its unconstitutionality, the content of his constitutional argument needs to be taken seriously. DiIulio describes the current state of legal doctrine accurately: in brief, the government may finance charity efforts undertaken by religious organizations provided the money is granted on the same terms as that offered to secular groups. The so-called “charitable choice” laws signed by President Clinton stipulated that no funds could be used for proselytizing, worship or religious instruction; that the organizations were subject to strict requirements of equal treatment of volunteers and employees alike; and that they were obliged to help all comers without regard to religion. These demands are consistent with the terms on which the federal and state governments had, since the 19th century, supported groups like Catholic Charities.
Where DiIulio goes astray is in his characterization of the beliefs of the founding fathers. He misleadingly calls the framers “Bible believing,” an anachronistic term implying a literal faith in unerring Scripture that the 18th-century mind did not contemplate. He labels Thomas Jefferson “faith friendly,” citing Jefferson ’s rewriting of the Gospels, without acknowledging that its title, “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth,” effectively denied Jesus’ divinity, resurrection and essential religious character.
Most unforgivably, DiIulio persistently misrepresents James Madison’s view that a multiplicity of sects, not a bill of rights, would protect religious liberty. In DiIulio’s telling, Madison“preached” that multiplicity could be used to support the financing of faith-based charities. But Madison ’s core political activity in the years before the drafting of the Constitution was opposing a bill in the Virginia Legislature that would have given aid to multiple religious sects on perfectly nonpreferential terms. DiIulio’s misuse of Madison ’s legacy would be troubling even if it were not accompanied by the shockingly ignorant statement that Justice David Souter, the closest exponent of the Madisonian vision on today’s Supreme Court, “has not really read his Madison .”
DiIulio also disappoints when applying the law to his favored charities. He protests a recent court decision striking down a Prison Fellowship Ministries program, saying that no one is coerced to join it and no proselytizing occurs. But of course coercion is not the test of establishment of religion: paying for a church service would not cease to be an illegitimate use of government funds even if the worship was noncoercive and involved no outreach. DiIulio insists that few faith-based programs are “faith-saturated,” in the sense that they rely totally on religion to achieve their goals. But total saturation is not necessary to make a program religious in content.
Opponents of faith-based aid are not alarmists; nor do they object if DiIulio wants to fund such charities out of his own pocket. They are simply worried—with Madison —that the use of tax dollars to support inherently religious activities subverts the principle of keeping religion separate from government.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.