Acting in Good Faith

As head of the new White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, John DiIulio has the job of shepherding the government's partnerships with faith-based organizations—and of taking the heat from Right and Left as the church-and-state debate swirls. Sojourners editor Jim Wallis sat down with DiIulio in March and discussed some of the challenges he faces—and his belief that the time is ripe for a renewed anti-poverty movement.

Jim Wallis: What are the main goals of the White House Office on Faith-Based and Community Initiatives?

John DiIulio: We have a tripartite mission. Number one, we're supposed to help the president figure out ways to increase charitable giving—financial and human. The president's financial plan is letting non-itemizers deduct for charitable contributions. That would open things up to about 80 million people. On the human giving side, we have the president's bully pulpit for volunteering, valuing volunteers, and celebrating people who give their time, not just their money.

Mission two is making sure that religious and secular organizations in the community that traditionally haven't been part of the federal funding loops get to be a part of them, if they so choose, and that there aren't perverse rules and regulations that prevent them from doing so. Not every rule and regulation that makes it harder for certain groups to get funding or participate in a program is bad. But there are many rules and regulations that amount to mere credentialism, that make it difficult for people who traditionally haven't been in the network of governmental partnerships to partner.

The third part of our mission is to identify, on a selected basis, model public/private partnerships involving religious and secular organizations that work across the usual racial and denominational lines to achieve key civic goals. The so-called Compassion Capital Fund will look around, city by city, and see what initiatives are out there that can go to a larger scale. For example, we have thousands of kids in good quality, well-managed mentoring relationships, with good evidence of the tremendous positive impact it has on their lives, and yet we haven't been able to get to scale. There are 15 million kids who might need it and want it and whose folks might want to have them engaged with a loving, caring adult in their life. How do you get there? You get there by going to mentor-rich organizations. What are they? Colleges, community groups, corporations, churches, synagogues, and mosques.

Wallis: How much money do you want in the Compassion Capital Fund?

DiIullio: At least several hundred million dollars a year, for starters. I think the religious communities and secular community-based organizations have something to prove, and I am 100 percent sure that given the opportunity, direction, resources, and help, they'll prove it. Once you see mentoring going to scale in big city after city all across the country, we'll have a social dynamic you've never seen. Once you see quality basic reading programs being available at scale and within walking distance of children's homes or schools, once you see armies of religious volunteers being mobilized into Medicaid Pediacare service delivery, into elder care and home care service delivery, once people get a taste of what can happen when you get these fourth sector initiatives—public/private, religious/secular, urban/ suburban—the appetite will grow dramatically. We'll wonder why we didn't do it before, we'll wonder why we're not doing more of it now, we'll wonder how morally and in civic terms we can afford not to do more of it.

Wallis: A lot of folks who are doing the work are worried that more of the responsibility is shifting to them, with fewer resources, having to "build bricks without straw" as it were.

DiIulio: If you go back to then-Gov. Bush's July 22, 1999 speech, he says explicitly that we must not ask these community helpers and healers to make bricks without straw. They need and deserve our greater support, both public and private. Now there's a fine line between understanding that there are greater needs, stresses, and demands being placed on community-based organizations, religious and secular, on the one hand, and immediately having the old-line liberal response, which is "so let's spend more money, let's appropriate more funds." There's got to be something between the impulse and the implementation, and that is concern for real results. Because it does the poor, the troubled, and the broken and breadless families no good if we spend more money and that money goes through the same leaky buckets.

If we ask how many hot meals got delivered, how many children got mentored and what good it did them, how many kids are actually reading at or above grade level as a result of the program; if we focus on the needs of the folks themselves, and we're willing to be agnostic with respect to how we get from here to there, and we act in good faith—whether we're people of religious faith or just people of good will without any particular religious faith—we can get there.

Wallis: What about the big, structural things that local groups can't do—like providing for the 43 million Americans who don't have health insurance?

DiIulio: The president believes he ought to address the problem at whatever level and by whatever means are necessary. If that means an expansion of a national government program or federal-state program like Medicaid, or expanding the education budget by 11 percent, you can rest assured; he's not allergic to spending government money. But he insists that it not just be money to address a need, the old "throwing money at the problem." That he will not do.

Take Medicaid. We're now down to around 10 million kids—from 11-plus million—who are uninsured. Because of the way the children's health insurance program has been improved over the past couple of years, we saw the first-ever decrease in the number of uninsured kids. That was good news. But it's cold comfort to the 10 million kids who aren't getting adequate medical attention. And it's certainly cold comfort to the children, youth, and families who are poor in places like Philadelphia, where there is no public hospital, where Temple University is doing $70 million a year in uncompensated care.

How do you address it? The answer has to be greater civil society. It cannot just be government. These have to be, to steal Peter Drucker's phrase, fourth-sector initiatives. Government at all levels, the private sector, the nonprofit sector, religious and secular, large national nonprofits, small community groups—everybody's got to focus on the problem.

Wallis: The money that is being spent on anti-povertyefforts, most would agree, has not solved the problem. Are you saying that you want to focus that money particularly on local and community groups who are doing the work on the ground, but that the government will also take responsibility for the big structural questions?

DiIulio: Absolutely. There's no alternative to that. Government's going to be called to account for results, for performance. Government is going to have to partner more creatively with the private sector, and most especially with the nonprofit sector. Everybody across the board is going to have to pick up their game. The administration will insist that there is such a thing as social justice and collective responsibility, such a thing as subsidiarity.

Wallis: So you want to apply subsidiarity, a Catholic principle, to our social welfare system?

DiIulio: I don't know any other way to think about it. The president doesn't call it subsidiarity—that's not his particular tradition—but I call it subsidiarity, which says it's always best to keep the response as close to the person as possible. Solve it on the scale that's necessary. Demonstrate that it can be done. Produce models that can be franchised. Use faith and community initiatives where possible. But let no one suppose that, for example, the desire to double the number of community access clinics to 1,200, as the president has proposed, is considered a substitute for Medicaid. It's a supplement. It'll make Medicaid work better and cost less.

Wallis: Let's talk about the people you love and care about who are doing the work on the ground. What advice can you give them as they approach a new administration about issues like the tax cut or the estate tax or the family tax credit that is refundable for low-income families, or getting Medicaid to those 10 million kids?

DiIulio: You've got to keep it real. Be specific and concrete. Step forward and say, "We have a problem: The following children, who were eligible for health care and should have been able to get quality healthcare in these 62 square blocks, didn't get it." Be specific in having a solution to every problem, and be concrete in putting your own human and financial resources into it. "Here's what we'll do" has to be the first thing that comes out of the mouth of the prophetic voice.

There are a lot of people in this society who are basically living lives that don't touch at all upon the problems of the poor and the needy. We've come to a point in our urban settlement system where we've sorted people according to income almost to a degree that no central planner could have imagined. You've got all the people with here, and all the people without terribly concentrated there. The way that society is structured today, it's possible for those of us who don't want ever to see or hear about the "there" to tune it out.

Wallis: You drew some lines in the sand when you spoke to the National Association of Evangelicals. What do you want to clarify about your position on the separation of church and state, the First Amendment, and so on?

DiIulio: The first thing is, we didn't draw any new lines. We just did a recitation of the lines that are there in public law, as a matter of federal anti-discrimination policy and with respect to extant constitutional interpretation. We explained to folks what President Clinton and Sen. Wellstone did four-and-a-half years ago when they came together to support charitable choice, when it passed again as Community Services Block Grant in 1998, when it passed again last year, and so on. We're catching up with something that's already happened.

Public money gets used for public purposes. Period. It has to have a public purpose. Does it mean that a program can't have any religious content? Of course it doesn't mean that. That's what charitable choice is all about. It says you can be a participant in social service delivery and receive partial funding from the federal government on the same basis as any other non-governmental provider, provided that you follow the same basic regime of anti-discrimination laws, the same personnel protocols, and so on. You can't discriminate against beneficiaries at all—not on race, color, national origin, disability, or religion. If someone shows up and they don't want to participate in the religious component of your program, you can't require them to participate.

For the majority of people we're talking about, faith is the motivation that brings them to be the volunteer spine of civil society. We've got Anabaptists, Baptists, Catholics, Jews, Jehovah's Witnesses, Zen Buddhists, secularists, and atheists. We're saying let's welcome godly people back into the public square in a way that does not require them to be who and what they're not. Don't require the person who wants to be in the public square as a volunteer in an after-school program to pretend that they're not there because they have a religious motivation. Don't force them to take down the Star of David. Don't force them to take down the Crescent or the crucifix. Let them be who they are, but do not for one moment use public funds for the purpose of an indivisibly conversion-centered, proselytizing program.

Wallis: Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and Barry Lynn have attacked you from the Right and from the Left. It's probably a sign that you're doing something right.

DiIulio: I'm so wide you can't help but attack me from right and left!

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