President-elect George W. Bush met with religious leaders yesterday to discuss his new faith-based program, which would establish a White House office of “faith-based action” and expand tax deductions and credits for charitable organizations that work with the poor and disadvantaged. Among the denominations present at the meeting were African American churches, the Baptist Church, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Islamic Center of America. Rev. Jesse Jackson called the meeting a strategy of divide and conquer – and a Bush attempt to garner support among blacks, who disproportionately voted for Gore.
“Bush met with religious leaders, but he should meet with women leaders,” said Eleanor Smeal, President of the Feminist Majority Foundation. Smeal sees the new faith-based initiative as possibly dangerous to the separation of church and state and, at its core, a strategy not only to divide and conquer African-Americans but also to re-assert the ascendancy of male-dominated hierarchical organizations into social programs. “Most of the poor are women and children,” Smeal notes, “and ministers and priests are disproportionately male. In faith-based programs, females are systematically reduced from participatory decision-makers to the recipients of trickled-down aid. Institutions that are the last to change in favor of the inclusion of women will now be enhanced as gatekeepers of aid to women and children – with monies provided by all taxpayers, male and female.”
In addition to taking money away from female-based institutions, like those run by social workers and women-led nonprofit organizations, Bush’s faith-based initiative discriminates against progressive-minded charitable organizations that are not faith-based. In addition, the program raises the question of whether recipients of aid will be pressured or forced into adopting certain beliefs in order to receive aid. “This program will replace social workers and public agencies with ministers and priests,” Smeal warns. “It underwrites religion with tax dollars and violates the separation of church and state. In addition, it puts taxpayer money into the hands of religious leaders who then have a vested interest in a poverty class, rather than investing in the elimination of poverty, putting the money directly into the hands of the poor.”