Is a ‘Faith-Based’ Future Inevitable?

Rob Boston

Godly Republic: A Centrist Blueprint for America’s Faith-Based Future, by John J. DiIulio Jr. (California: University of California Press, 2007, ISBN 978-0-520-25414-5) 309 pp. Cloth $24.95.

There were times while reading John J. DiIulio’s Godly Republic: A Centrist Blueprint for America’s Faith-Based Future that I would nod my head and think, “That sounds reasonable.” But those times were rare. More often, I wanted to throw the book across the room in exasperation.

DiIulio took a leave of absence from his position as professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania to serve as the first director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives under President George W. Bush, running the office for about two years. Since then, the initiative has been exposed as little more than a cheap political stunt designed to persuade religious people to vote for Republicans in the hope that their church might get some federal money. Studies have shown that the faith-based approach does no better, and in some cases does worse, than secular alternatives. Lawsuits have been filed, and some programs have been declared unconstitutional by the courts. Despite all of that, DiIulio remains a true believer in faith-based initiatives. Godly Republic is his attempt to explain why.

Godly Republic is a rather tedious book, full of the type of inside baseball that only a true Beltway policy wonk could love. In an effort to make the book more user-friendly, the University of California Press portrays DiIulio as a moderate who fills the gap between religious Right “Christian nation” advocates on one side and aggressive secularists on the other. The book purports to debunk “myths” that both sides perpetrate.

The problem is that DiIulio isn’t really a centrist. His analysis of the historical development of separation of church and state early in the book parrots the religious Right line. He duly informs us that separation of church and state has no historical basis and quickly dismisses Thomas Jefferson’s famous letter to the Danbury Baptists endorsing a high church-state wall. He then informs us that church-state separation is really an anti-Catholic plot cooked up in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Our country was never meant to be a secular state, he says.

DiIulio mutilates the beliefs of the Founders, constantly calling Thomas Jefferson “faith friendly.” He mentions that Jefferson even wrote a book about the Bible—The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. He does not mention that Jefferson’s Jesus is a human and ethical being stripped of his divinity and ability to perform miracles.

James Madison, the father of the Constitution and a key drafter of the First Amendment, fares no better. Madison, according to DiIulio, was a committed Christian who sought a “godly republic.” But, if Madison felt that way, wouldn’t he have built that concept into the Constitution or at least stated it publicly? Madison’s commitment to conservative Christianity seems a bit tenuous as well. Leading biographer Ralph Ketcham refers to Madison, who was nominally an Anglican, as a “deist” and states that as an adult he was not a particularly ardent believer.

Since DiIulio’s historical argument is built on sand, it’s not surprising that the rest of the book, which hinges on it, soon collapses. Things run rapidly downhill as DiIulio essentially becomes an apologist for every fault of the faith-based initiative. DiIulio mentions David Kuo, who left the Faith-Based Office in 2003 in disgust after concluding that the White House was using the scheme for political purposes. DiIulio never tries to refute Kuo’s charges, probably because he knows they are true. After he left the White House, DiIulio gave an infamous interview with Esquire magazine in which he charged that the Bush administration failed to make significant domestic policy achievements because political considerations and right-wing interest groups had too much control. Said DiIulio, “What you’ve got is everything, and I mean everything, being run by the political arm. It’s the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis.”

DiIulio’s book only briefly mentions this seminal incident, and he notes that he has apologized for using the term. One gets the impression that DiIulio knows deep down that his cherished initiative had become a political football but cannot bring himself to admit it.

But perhaps the book’s most remarkable concession appears on pages 145–46. DiIulio writes about Teen Challenge, a fundamentalist Christian substance-abuse recovery program. For years, Teen Challenge has made astounding claims, such as 70 to 85 percent of its graduates become sober. If that were true, it would be remarkable. But it’s not true. DiIulio is at least honest enough to point out that the figures have been fudged. Teen Challenge, he notes, doesn’t count its dropouts. He goes on casually to write, “This does not mean that Teen Challenge is not worthwhile or deserving of support (it is one of the faith-based groups that will share all the author’s royalties on this book). But this assessment does remind us that there is as yet no clear-cut empirical evidence that religious nonprofit programs that promote spiritual transformation perform as well or better than comparable faith-based organizations that do not proselytize, or than comparable nonreligious organizations.”

Whoa. Let’s back up. Actually, if Teen Challenge is failing to help many of the youngsters who enroll, then of course the group is not worthy of support. This concept is true writ large. The faith-based approach either works or it doesn’t. DiIulio is admitting that faith-based groups aren’t doing the job any better than anyone else. Then why does he expect us to sit idly by while, potentially, billions in taxpayer dollars are directed toward these groups?

I found DiIulio’s analysis of groups like Teen Challenge unsatisfying. Does he want to fund them or not? At one point, DiIulio writes that religious organizations bent on proselytizing should not receive tax support. A few pages later, he bashes a federal judge who struck down public support for an Iowa prison program that constantly proselytized. The InnerChange Freedom Initiative was saturated with fundamentalist Christianity. Staff members scorned participants of other faiths and openly bragged that their approach was “a revolutionary, Christ-centered, values-based pre-release program supporting prison inmates through their spiritual and moral transformation.” (Americans United for Separation of Church and State litigated that case. A federal appeals court has upheld the lower court ruling.)

Let’s recap: DiIulio admits there is no evidence that faith-based groups are more effective than secular ones. He knows that the initiative can be used for inappropriate partisan purposes. He’s unclear on how much religion is too much religion when it comes to tax funding. He must know that somewhere along the line, a government bureaucrat would have to differentiate between “faith-saturated” groups and “faith-based” ones, and that the mere act of making such distinctions would require the government to wade into a theological thicket. Why then, given these flaws, is he so eager to press ahead?

The answer is perhaps that DiIulio has a lot vested in this approach. He has studied it as a researcher, and it’s clear he really believes in it. He wants it to work, so it must work. There must be a faith-based future because, well, DiIulio really wants there to be one. To DiIulio, adherence to ideology is more important than facts.

What about those of us who’d rather not live in a faith-based future, who’d rather not pay taxes to support someone else’s religion? DiIulio has an answer for that as well: Too bad.

Back in the 1990s, DiIulio predicted the rise of what he called “superpredators”—gangs of out-of-control juveniles who would lead a new wave of horrific crime. (DiIulio described them as a “generational wolf pack” who would be “fatherless, Godless and jobless.”) DiIulio supposedly analyzed data. The superpredators would have their day, and that was that. But that day never came. In fact, juvenile crime actually decreased. DiIulio eventually backed away from the superpredator idea. One wonders how long it will take him to admit he’s wrong about faith-based initiatives as well.

Rob Boston

Rob Boston is senior policy analyst at Americans United for Separation of Church and State in Washington, D.C.

Godly Republic: A Centrist Blueprint for America’s Faith-Based Future, by John J. DiIulio Jr. (California: University of California Press, 2007, ISBN 978-0-520-25414-5) 309 pp. Cloth $24.95. There were times while reading John J. DiIulio’s Godly Republic: A Centrist Blueprint for America’s Faith-Based Future that I would nod my head and think, “That sounds reasonable.” But …

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