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President Bush's Faith-Based Initiative Is a Trial For Black Leadership


President Bush's signing of two executive orders that would establish a White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives as well as similar offices in five Cabinet Departments - Education; Health and Human Services; Housing and Urban Development; Justice; and Labor; represents a serious opportunity and challenge to Black leaders who claim that the eradication of poverty, drug abuse and homelessness are top priorities.

Bush's executive orders, when combined with legislation that he supports that would expand opportunities for Churches and Mosques to obtain federal funding for services they provide to needy families, could divide Black leaders and organizations along partisan, civic and religious lines or it could inspire a badly needed Black united front that places the upliftment of the Black community over political coalitions and ideology.

For members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Black civil rights establishment the Bush initiative places them in the valley of decision. Will they support the removal of barriers to respected religious institutions with a proven track record in the Black community, who seek to address social problems partly through the use of federal funds? Or will they submit to the arguments of White civil libertarians and secular humanists who live outside of the Black community and who have a virulent opposition to religion which causes them to oppose anything that brings Jesus, Muhammad, Jehovah or Allah into the political process? Civil libertarians and secular humanists oppose Bush's initiative on the grounds that they believe it violates the separation of church and state and equal employment opportunity laws. Both groups hold considerable sway in the Democratic Party and have working relations with Black leaders on civil rights issues. Another interesting question arising out of this issue and debate will be whether the Congressional Black Caucus can work closely with Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Ok.) who has shown great leadership on the issue of the role of faith-based institutions in community development. Although Rep. Watts has a working relationship with a few members of the Black Caucus, partisan politics and years of bad feelings divide him from the majority of its members.

For Black Pastors, Ministers, Rabbis and Imams, the Bush initiative could be a double-edged sword as it makes federal funds more accessible to religious institutions but also brings them in harmony with a political party and its leader who are enormously unpopular with the Black electorate. These spiritual leaders may find themselves in the position of being labeled as sell-outs and on the "pay-roll" of the Bush administration or US government for accepting funding under the Charitable Choice program. In addition, many wonder why it has taken a White Republican president to mobilize and even unite Black spiritual leaders around their missions. Why should access to the White House and the opening of government coffers to Black religious leaders spark a renewal in community and social development among these leaders, some ask. And can the interaction of independent and conservative Black religious leaders with President Bush and top Republican lawmakers foster a healthy two-party competition for the Black vote in 2002 and 2004?

And finally will Black leaders and organizations sit idly by if political pressure from interest groups were used to deny the Nation of Islam - which has a sterling record in reforming drug addicts and prisoners -access to federal funding for the work it does in Black, Latino and Native American communities? When the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) under political pressure from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and Rep. Peter King (R-NY) moved to take contracts away from members of the Nation of Islam who were effectively securing housing projects, national Black leaders and organizations were silent and did not publicly lift a finger to stop opposition that even HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros said bordered on religious persecution.

Another showdown may be looming as we witnessed several occasions yesterday, where civil libertarians and secular humanists that oppose Bush's initiative, asked the question, on news television programs, "Do you really want federal funds going to the Nation of Islam?"

Interestingly, Black leaders and organizations did not speak out when the Nation of Islam was designated as a "hate-group" by Morris Dees Southern Poverty Law Center - an organization that works hand-in-hand with civil-rights organizations, the ADL and FBI and which is pushing for hate-crimes legislation that we believe is ultimately aimed at outlawing the Nation of Islam and other "unacceptable" groups in the Black community.

Over the next four years Black leaders and organizations will have to decide first, if it is in their self-interests and the collective interests of the Black community if Black religious organizations should use federal funds to solve community problems and second, whether they will choose operational unity over traditional political coalitions.


Cedric Muhammad

Tuesday, January 30, 2001

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