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Originally published Monday, March 14, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Neal Peirce / Syndicated columnist

Faith-based whistle-blowing

The Rev. Jim Dickerson is founder and pastor of the New Community Church, a highly active, interracial congregation in Washington's inner...

The Rev. Jim Dickerson is founder and pastor of the New Community Church, a highly active, interracial congregation in Washington's inner city. He should be a perfect candidate for George Bush's faith-based initiative, a soldier in the president's "army of compassion."

The Manna Community Development Corporation Dickerson founded in the 1980s has renovated or built an amazing total of 850 units of homeownership housing along once drug- and crime-infested streets. The effort has not only helped revive the long-depressed, historically African-American Shaw and Columbia Heights neighborhoods but created $50 million in equity for low-income families.

Talk about an "ownership society"!

But Dickerson is no fan of Bush's faith-based efforts. He relates how he was invited, early in the Bush presidency, to confer on faith initiatives with then-Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla., Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., and then-House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas.

"I listened," he says, "but it was quickly obvious this was just a smokescreen to recruit blacks and minorities into the Republican Party by bribing them with money and access to power — even while covering up cuts in vital social programs and giving big tax cuts to the wealthy."

Dickerson concluded that the talk of "leveling the playing field" to channel funding to religiously based groups was disingenuous: "Every social program I've been part of these past 40 years had been explicitly 'faith-based' in one form or another and used government money. We've never been discriminated against because of our faith."

Believing the opportunity for "a new bipartisan government/faith-based partnership" to address deep social problems was being lost, Dickerson expressed his concern to the Capitol Hill group. He was promptly "disinvited" from the meetings.

Now Dickerson is distraught over Bush's proposed deep cuts in community development block grants — a program he says has been "critical" to his Manna organization in helping hundreds of low-income people achieve homeownership.

Could the reality of Bush's faith-based efforts be as bleak as Dickerson suggests?

Bush has pushed the issue steadfastly. "Compassionate conservatism" was a key theme of his 2000 presidential campaign. Just nine days after assuming the presidency he issued an executive order creating his White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. In 2001, he gave seven speeches on the faith-based theme in 17 days. He has given dozens of addresses on the topic; he has mentioned it in every State of the Union address.

In a major speech March 1, Bush reiterated his commitment and urged Congress to pass legislation allowing religious charities to hire and fire based on religious beliefs even while receiving federal funding.

It's worth recalling that Democrats Al Gore and Bill Bradley also indicated support for faith-based initiatives in their unsuccessful 2000 presidential bids. Bush's advisers on faith-based initiatives include such respected figures as former Indianapolis Mayor Steve Goldsmith.

But diversion of funding to faith-based efforts automatically raises suspicions of penalizing sectarian groups already doing a good job. Dickerson charges that it may co-opt churches that get funded, silencing criticism of the administration.

Strong White House control also raises concerns. Purportedly to help small groups without staff or expertise apply for grants, Bush executive orders have inserted faith-based staffs, directed by the White House office, into 11 federal departments and agencies.

It's tough to believe Karl Rove and other White House operatives don't have a hand in this arrangement. The offices drain funds. And, notes the Rockefeller Institute of Government's Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy, they represent an "ironic ... new level of bureaucracy" in an administration that supposedly favors privatizing services and reducing the size of government.

As Dickerson sees it, Bush is promoting "Empire Religion," which uses God to justify political policies and maintain power — "an idolatry of power in the name of Jesus that is destructive of everything Jesus was about."

That's strong language, to be sure. But even if one respects the president's motives, the faith-based initiative has one huge flaw: It's likely to end up as a tactic, not a goal, in a rigidly conservative administration that "never really wanted the 'poor people stuff,' " as David Kuo, a former official of the White House faith-based office, recently charged.

Case in point: The administration has quietly dumped its proposed $85 billion tax break to stimulate charitable giving, once a linchpin of its compassionate-conservative agenda.

And with the wrenching domestic budget cuts the administration now demands to tamp down deficits and pay for massive tax cuts and war, all government-supported social outreach — faith-based or not — will be imperiled. In a fiscal hurricane, the drowning is likely to be indiscriminate.

Neal Peirce's column appears alternate Mondays on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is nrp@citistates.com

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