Towey urges faith-based solutions

by Matthew Kelly | 11/6/03 6:00am

While President Bush has garnered criticism over major issues such as Iraq and the economy, yesterday at Dartmouth Hall a member of his administration addressed another flashpoint of controversy -- his proposal to federally fund faith-based charitable organizations. Jim Towey, Director of the Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, spoke about the program's goals and constitutionality.

According to Towey, the federal government this year will spend $67 billion on social services through a variety of agencies and with a variety of regulations amounting to what he described as "a thicket."

Despite the booming economy of the past decade, poverty statistics are still staggering. 13.6 million children under the age of 12 are underfed, and over five million seniors are at or near the poverty line. 16.6 million Americans had substance abuse problems last year, and over two million children have a parent in prison.

Towey worked extensively in charity, social programs and politics prior to his appointment to the Bush White House. His experiences include running Florida's health and services agency -- the largest in the nation -- under Governor Lawton Chiles, a Democrat, and working for U.S. Senator Mark O. Hatfield (R-OR).

Towey has also served as Mother Theresa's legal counsel for the 12 years until her death, and he lived full-time in her Washington, D.C., home for people living with A.I.D.S.

According to Towey, Mother Theresa believed the worst disease in the world was loneliness, which underlies why Towey believes traditional governmental social services are ineffective.

"Other social work that only addresses material needs is doomed to fail, because they don't address the spiritual side," Towey said. "Right now, we are not addressing the underlying wounds in their lives."

While governmental social agencies' main goal is to determine eligibility and dispense benefits to the poor, faith-based organizations can befriend the poor and seek to understand and solve these underlying issues.

That being said, he stressed that these federal funds are only given to groups that meet strict requirements. First, the group may not discriminate on the basis of religion, race, or sexual orientation in their dispensing of funds. Secondly, the recipient of aid must not be compelled to pray. Finally, the public money must go to public service.

"Faith-based initiatives are not about funding religion," Towey said.

These organizations, however, are able to maintain their identities as religious groups, thus protecting their religious freedom, which is also guaranteed under the Constitution.

Bush's policies are aimed at removing regulatory barriers that impeded federal aid to religious organizations.

He cited the Old North Church in Boston, which couldn't receive federal aid to restore its interior because of its religious functions, despite its importance in American independence. He also referred to a Jewish school in Seattle that couldn't receive FEMA earthquake disaster relief.

The new policy removes those regulations, which Towey continually described as "ridiculous."

Faith-based initiatives were a keystone of the President's campaign theme of "compassionate conservatism." Introduced only three days after his inauguration, the proposal to give more public money to religious organizations immediately drew the ire of critics, claiming that it was payback to the religious right. Others saw a conflict with the separation of church and state as unconstitutional.

"Faith-based organizations have been misunderstood in part," Towey said. "There are interest groups that wake up every morning trying to undermine the initiative."

He attributes the lack of understanding of faith-based organizations to poor media coverage. Instead of focusing on the successful uses of public money for religious organizations, he said, the media reports negative stories.

He also went on to cite the fact that while many believe that federal funding of religious organizations is new to President Bush, in fact President Clinton funded faith-based organizations in his 1996 Welfare Reform Act. In addition, large and popular religious charitable organizations such as the Salvation Army and large Catholic and Jewish charities have received federal money for years, according to Towey. The federal government also subsidizes religious donations through tax deductions.

This addressed the dichotomy in American history of pervasive influence of religion dating back to Puritanism, while at the same time enforcing a separation of church and state.

Towey admitted that gauging the success of social programs is an area that needs to be improved. He said that he hopes universities will aid him in determining whether faith-based organizations are a more effective way to help the poor and treat drug addicts.