• First published in 2004 as Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion (BNOR).

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Bush: Changing America’s Culture with Faith-Based Organisations

The White House website has published Bush’s speech at the First White House National Conference on Faith-Based and Community Initiatives:

[Some people in government have said that] because there’s a rabbi on the board, cross on the wall, or a crescent on the door. I viewed this as not only bad social policy — because policy by-passed the great works of compassion and healing that take place — I viewed it as discrimination…And the message to you is we’re changing the culture here in America.

Federal money can therefore go to such groups, “so long as they don’t proselytize, or exclude somebody simply because they don’t share a certain faith”.

Not proselytise? No discrimination? Is he quite sure?

[Tony Evans]…assures me that as of being — as a result of being a successful church, in the sense that it’s got a lot of building, a lot of members and a pretty good sized budget — by the way, he started with a — in a house; he started small and grew big — that he is willing to help young churches, and faith-based programs in inner-city Dallas, Texas, as to how to accomplish the mission, how to grow from little to big, how to grow from wanting to be vibrant, to successful. And that’s what the faith-based initiative is meant to do. It’s meant to allow for access of federal money, but at the same time spawn the entrepreneurial spirit, what I call social entrepreneurs, and encourage their growth.

Has Bush garbled it? Is he being deliberately ambiguous? Or does he really mean that he wants to assist Evans “to help young churches, and faith-based programs [i.e. both – RB] in inner-city Dallas, Texas, as to how to accomplish the mission, how to grow from little to big”?

Bush also gives his considered opinion on addiction programs:

I will tell you — I will tell you, the cornerstone of any good recovery program is the understanding there is a Higher Being to which — (applause) — to whom you can turn your life, and therefore save your life.

Therefore recovery programmes that don’t refer to a “Higher Being” are no good? If so, then perhaps federal money for them should be stopped? What’s more:

Six hundred thousand — more than 600,000 inmates will be released from prison this year. Those are a lot of souls that need help coming into our society. I can’t think of a better place for a prisoner to go is to a church or a synagogue, or a mosque and say, I need help.

Unless, perhaps, you think that non-religious people (or members of faiths that don’t run ex-prisoner support programmes) shouldn’t have to go knocking the doors of particular religious institutions because no other help is available?

Bush, however, is more modest about his own abilities – maybe he feels he has much to be modest about?

Listen, what I’m telling you is, is that I told our government, the people in my government rather than fear faith programs, welcome them. They’re changing America. They do a better job than government can do.

There you go – don’t blame Bush for any of the USA’s social problems – they are unfixable, except through faith-based organisations!

However, despite all of the above Bush may have blown it with some of his more conservative supporters – talk of a “Higher Being” rather than “Jesus” will have raised suspicions, but this will have the “New World Order” crowd in a frenzy:

When you hear me talk about faith, I’m talking about all faiths, whether it be the Jewish faith or the Christian faith or the Muslim faith or the Hindu faith — all faiths have got the power to transform lives.

Bush also mentions some of the people he conferred with just prior to the speech, “healers, and doers, and community changers”, as part of his drive to find out ” whether or not the strategy is being properly implemented”:

Mark Franken is the executive director of migration and refugee services of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops — is with us. Wintley Phipps is the founder, president, and CEO of the U.S. Dream Academy, from Columbia, Maryland. Archbishop Harry Flynn, of the Archdiocese of Minneapolis; Bishop Don Wuerl, the bishop of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; my friend from the great state of Texas Tony Evans, of the Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship. (Applause.) There’s a few Texans here, Tony, that know of you. Pastor Rick Warren, of Saddleback Church, Lake Forest, California — (applause); Reverend Cheryl Anthony Mobley, is the founder and CEO of the Judah International, from Brooklyn; and from a local church here, Jim Sprouse, the pastor of Trinity United Methodist.

So who are these people and organisations? Well, Bush’s people aren’t going to want to bring up some of the less credible characters who have been involved with faith-based initatives (such as Reverend Moon), and by highlighting mainly mainstream denominational Christian leaders they’ve steered clear of any obvious link to the religious right (although Chuck Colson inevitably pops up later). The weakest link is Bush’s friend Tony Evans, who runs the Urban Alternative. How this would qualify is unclear, since its website clearly states that “The Urban Alternative is a teaching ministry, providing Christian resources for the home that will heal and renew relationships.” In fact, Evans admits that evangelism is a prime purpose of his organisation:

It is the mission of The Urban Alternative to equip, empower and unite Christians to impact individuals, families, churches and communities for the rebuilding of lives from the inside out. When each biblical sphere of life functions properly, the net result is evangelism, discipleship, and community impact. As people learn how to govern themselves under God, they then transform the institutions of family, church, and government from a biblically based kingdom perspective.

He’s also involved with the Promise Keepers, and his church can be found here. Moody publishes his books and pamphlets, premillennialist tomes (he was the first African-American doctoral graduate from Hal Lindsey’s alma mater, the Dallas Theological Seminary) and his Tony Evans Speaks Out Series, in which he Speaks Out on subjects like Sexual Purity, Spiritual Warfare, A Man’s Role in the Home, A Woman’s Role in the Home and diverse other subjects.

However, this should be balanced against the other figures and organisations mentioned:

The United States Catholic Migration and Refugee Services (MRS) does important and useful work. According to its website, it “resettles nearly one-fourth of all refugees admitted to the U.S. each year”.

Whitney Smith is a Gospel singer who has “performed before audiences across North America, Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, Bermuda and the Caribbean. He has sung for U.S. Presidents, the Vatican, and appeared as a special guest on the Oprah Winfrey Show and CBS Nightwatch.” Not sure how he got on at the Vatican, since, as a Seventh Day Adventist minister, he will be of the opinion that the Pope is the Anti-Christ. His U.S Dream Academy provides mentoring for children whose parents are in jail.

Archbishop Harry Flynn is noted for anti-racism, and for instructing that church members wearing rainbow sashes to support gay equality should not be barred from Communion (in a break with some of his colleagues and much to the annoyance of a certain David Pence, who’s been disrupting masses as a protest)

Bishop Donald Wuerl is also respected, having run his diocese well and, according to the Post-Gazette, he “emerged from last year’s Catholic sexual abuse scandals as a poster bishop for zero tolerance, hailed as a role model for his 1993 refusal to obey a Vatican order to reinstate an accused pedophile priest who had never been convicted of a crime, but who Wuerl believed was guilty.”

Rick Warren, of course, is very well-known for his Purpose Driven Life books on church and personal growth. He has had many profiles in the secular press of late – here’s one from USA Today. Chris Lehmann at Slate has a rather more sceptical take.

The Judah International Christian Center is a job training center, and has been profiled in the Gotham Gazette.

Jamie Sprouse, better-known as James Sprouse, pastors a congregation in McLean made up mainly of United Methodist Pentagon employees.

The White House has also issued more details of the meeting Bush held before the speech. There were few more Christians and several Jews, but that was about it.

Maxime Rodinson, author of “Muhammad”, has died

I’ve just seen a couple of obits for the French scholar Maxime Rodinson. I read Rodinson’s 1961 biography Muhammad when I was an undergrad (thanks to John Bousfield, who also died last week), and found it an excellent introduction to the man and his milieu; Edward Said, writing in The Nation in 2000 described it as “a bracing combination of anti-clerical irony and enormous erudition”.

The Egyptian government was rather less appreciative, as the Guardian reports:

Indeed, in 1999 Mohammed was withdrawn from the curriculum of the American University in Cairo after it was attacked by a newspaper columnist, and banned by the Egyptian minister for higher education amid charges that it “denigrated the Islamic faith”.

In a sympathetic review of Ibn Warraq’s Why I am Not a Muslim, Rodinson made this point regarding the excesses of Islamic fundamentalism (regrettably the article appears to have been quite poorly translated):

one must not reject the criticisms of Ibn Warraq a priori under the pretext that the individuals who are his targets have been or are still in great part the object of unjustified contempt. A crime is a crime even if the one who commits the crime is the target of another criminal. Likewise, an error. One is ashamed to express oneself with such obviousness. But it must be done and much more than once. For this is largely unknown. Fashionable intellectuals are besides the most relentless in their failure to recognize it.

The Beirut Daily Star notes that Rodinson and Edward Said fell out badly when Rodinson criticised Orientalism. The article accuses Said of “slander”, although it quotes him as having previously praised Rodinson for making “a constant attempt to keep (his) work responsive to the material (he was studying) and not to a doctrinal preconception.”

Rodinson, whose parents were killed in the Holocaust, was also a critic of Zionism and a supporter of Palestinian statehood.