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Bush brings faith to foreign aid
As funding rises, Christian groups deliver help -- with a message
October 8, 2006
This story is the first of four parts. It was reported and written by Farah Stockman, Michael Kranish, and Peter S. Canellos of the Globe Staff, and Globe correspondent Kevin Baron.
LAKARTINYA, Kenya -- The herders of this remote mountain village know little about America, but have learned from those who run a US-funded aid program about the American God.
A Christian God.
The US government has given $10.9 million to Food for the Hungry, a faith-based development organization, to reach deep into the arid mountains of northern Kenya to provide training in hygiene, childhood illnesses, and clean water. The group has brought all that, and something else that increasingly accompanies US-funded aid programs: r egular church service and prayer.
President Bush has almost doubled the percentage of US foreign-aid dollars going to faith-based groups such as Food for the Hungry, according to a Globe survey of government data. And in seeking to help such groups obtain more contracts, Bush has systematically eliminated or weakened rules designed to enforce the separation of church and state.
In Lakartinya, a simple hut built with funds from the US government is the first in the area to have a tin roof. It serves as a station for weighing babies, distributing food, teaching health classes -- and, until recently, initiating local people into the rites of Christianity, according to Food for the Hungry staff. Classes begin and end with prayers, and in some cases are followed by Christian services.
For decades, US policy has sought to avoid intermingling government programs and religious proselytizing. The aim is both to abide by the Constitution's prohibition against a state religion and to ensure that aid recipients don't forgo assistance because they don't share the religion of the provider.
Since medical programs are aimed at the most serious illnesses -- AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis -- the decision whether to seek treatment can determine life or death.
But many of those restrictions were removed by Bush in a little-noticed series of executive orders -- a policy change that cleared the way for religious groups to obtain hundreds of millions of dollars in additional government funding. It also helped change the message American aid workers bring to many corners of the world, from emphasizing religious neutrality to touting the healing powers of the Christian God.
Bush's orders altered the longstanding practice that groups preach religion in one space and run government programs in another. The administration said religious organizations can conduct services in the same space as they hand out government aid, so long as the services don't take place while the aid is being delivered. But the rule allows groups to schedule prayers immediately before or after dispensing taxpayer-funded aid.
Bush's orders also reversed longstanding rules forbidding the use of government funds to pay for employees who are required to take an oath to one religion. In addition, the president's orders allowed faith-based groups to keep religious symbols in places where they distribute taxpayer-funded aid.
And in implementing the president's orders, the administration rejected efforts to require groups to inform beneficiaries that they don't have to attend religious services to get the help they need. Instead of a requirement, groups are merely encouraged to make clear to recipients that they don't have to participate in religious activities.
Bush made some of the changes by executive order only after failing to get Congress to approve them; the bill faltered in the Senate, where moderate Republicans joined Democrats in raising concerns about breaking down the barrier between government and religion.
``I got a little frustrated in Washington because I couldn't get the bill passed," Bush told a meeting of faith-based groups in March 2004. ``Congress wouldn't act, so I signed an executive order -- that means I did it on my own."
The legality of Bush's moves is being challenged by a group advocating separation of church and state. The lawsuit, claiming both that Bush overstepped his powers and that the orders violate the Constitution, is inching its way through the federal courts.
Faith-based groups have long delivered humanitarian assistance in distant and dangerous places, marshaling an impressive array of volunteers. But Bush's initiative has put government dollars into faith-based providers in unprecedented fashion. A Globe survey of more than 52,000 awards of contracts, grants, and cooperative agreements from the US Agency for International Development -- which distributes taxpayer-funded assistance overseas -- provides the first comprehensive assessment of the impact of Bush's policies on foreign aid.
The survey of prime contractors and grantees, based on records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, shows a sharp increase in money going to faith-based groups between fiscal 2001, the last budget of the Clinton administration, and fiscal 2005, the last year for which complete figures were available. Faith-based groups accounted for 10.5 percent of USAID dollars to nongovernmental aid organizations in fiscal 2001, and 19.9 percent in 2005.
Boost for Christians
The numbers also show that the faith-based initiative overseas is almost exclusively a Christian initiative: Only two Jewish development groups and two Muslim groups of any type got any grants or contracts between fiscal 2001 and fiscal 2005, and Christians received 98.3 percent of all such funds to religious groups from fiscal 2001 to fiscal 2005.
The prime beneficiaries have been large groups including Catholic Relief Services and evangelical organizations such as World Vision -- the former employer of Bush's longtime USAID director Andrew Natsios -- and Samaritan's Purse, which is led by evangelist Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham, who guided Bush to his own religious rebirth.
Food for the Hungry, which is also evangelical, received its contract to run USAID programs in Lakartinya in fiscal 1999, during the Clinton administration, and it was renewed under Bush. The group's funding jumped from $7 million in fiscal 2001 to $20 million in fiscal 2005. Bush also appointed the group's president, Benjamin Homan, to chair USAID's advisory board.
Robert Snyder, Food for the Hungry's director for Kenya, said that the group seeks to segregate religious activities from aid programs, but that Kenyans don't usually believe in the concept of church-state separation.
``In Kenya, they don't separate things out," he said.
At Food for the Hungry's outpost in Lakartinya, staff members spoke openly of how they preach about Jesus while teaching breast-feeding and nutrition. Over the seven years that the group has been operating there, it has helped convert almost the entire area to Christianity, according to it's own field workers and villagers who participate in the programs.
Sante Dokhe, a 45-year-old mother of five from the Samburu tribe, became one of the health program's first ``contact mothers." She said she used to practice a traditional African religion. Then came her US-funded classes, which impressed her by drastically lowering the infant mortality rate in the village.
``The first time that I changed my mind is when we were learning the health education and our teacher was also talking about God," Dokhe said. ``We used to go to the rivers and pour milk for the god who stays in the mountain. But I learned through our classes that that is a very tiresome god. Now we have known that you don't need to struggle to please God. Now I have learned through health education that God is everywhere."
Christian missionaries have crisscrossed the world for generations, seeking to save souls by converting people.
US foreign-aid programs, however, began after World War II for the purely secular aim of winning friends for the United States. Now, aid packages and equipment purchased with government funds are stamped with the words ``From the American People" so beneficiaries can see the fruits of US generosity.
``The point of foreign assistance is national security," said Harriet Babbitt, who was USAID's second-ranking official during the last years of the Clinton administration.
Foreign aid programs have been criticized by some conservatives as unnecessary -- frittering away money that could be used in the United States. But in the late 1990s, evangelical groups began to focus on AIDS in Africa, and conservative Christian leaders became vocal supporters of government-funded programs.
Clinton's last USAID administrator was Brady Anderson, the president's boyhood friend and an evangelical Christian. Relations between USAID and faith-based organizations were strong, according to Babbitt and Anderson.
Nonetheless, after Bush took office in 2001, he surprised many people by declaring that religious groups had been systematically discriminated against in the awarding of government contracts. His administration issued a report called ``Unlevel Playing Field" that declared that faith-based groups faced too many restrictions. ``Some government rules require faith-based providers to endure something akin to an organizational strip search," the report said.
A push for applicants
To counter the alleged discrimination against churches, Bush used federal funds to hire outreach workers to hold training sessions and attend religious conferences in hopes of getting groups to apply for funds. The initiative, Bush promised, would ``open up billions of dollars in grant money competition to faith-based charities."
USAID workers began fanning out to religious events. They tried to convince skeptics that evangelical groups could follow government guidelines while still spreading the word of the Lord.
Clydette Powell, a doctor in USAID's public-health bureau, staged a workshop on public-private partnerships in tuberculosis at an evangelical conference last year in Louisville, Ky., proclaiming, ``There are tremendous opportunities, actually, for Christians -- and for, frankly, evangelistic purposes -- within a public health strategy such as TB. "
She added: ``I think Christians, who are so much more relational in this thing, have a leg up on, you know, just the regular public system because there is interest in developing a relationship -- in fact, hopefully, a relationship that leads them to know Christ as their savior and their lord in their lives."
When key senators balked at approving Bush's faith-based initiative, he claimed that they, too, were discriminating against churches.
But James Towey, who was director of the White House Office of Faith and Community Based Initiatives from 2002 until June 2006, said the major hang-up was Bush's desire to allow religious groups to reject candidates for government-funded jobs because the workers didn't practice the group's religion.
``The hiring provision gave everybody a lot of indigestion," Towey said.
In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed Executive Order No. 11246, a landmark directive that required all federal contractors to consider applications ``without regard to race, color, religion, sex or national origin."
Frustrated by Congress's refusal to reconsider Johnson's policy, Bush issued his own order in 2002 specifically allowing faith-based groups to discriminate in hiring for government-funded positions.
Bush explained himself in a speech in New Orleans on Jan. 15, 2004. Standing in front of a huge cross, the president said the federal government used to tell faith-based programs to ``take the cross down from the wall" to get government money.
``The problem is, faith-based programs only conform to one set of rules, and it's bigger than government rules," Bush said.
His rule changes were encouraged by both the Catholic Church, which was already the largest faith-based recipient of government money overseas, and the National Association of Evangelicals, whose leaders say it represents 30 million people.
The Catholic US Conference of Bishops declared, ``It is more important than ever to make sure that all charities, faith-based or secular, have access to the public and private resources they need" to serve the needy.
Robert Cizik, the evangelical association's vice president for governmental affairs, said, ``Without the faith-based service providers, there is no way to begin to stem the tide of AIDS."
He said Bush's rule changes -- including the reversal of Johnson's non-discrimination order -- were needed to give smaller evangelical providers ``an equal shot at the federal pie."
Other churches protest
Yet leaders of many large Christian denominations believe it is wrong for religious groups to discriminate based on religion when using government funds. And while Bush has portrayed many restrictions intended to enforce the separation of church and state as hostile to religion, many religious leaders disagree: They say the separation of church and state has allowed religions to flourish.
Many large Protestant denominations say the administration is catering to the religious right -- particularly evangelical groups seeking funding for missions whose ultimate aim is recruiting new members.
Bishop Frank Griswold, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, the faith in which Bush was raised, said he strongly opposed allowing faith-based contractors to discriminate in hiring. But the bishop said he was unable to express his concerns to Bush.
``I must say it has been very difficult for me -- and I think I can speak for the mainline churches as well -- to have any substantial engagement with the president," Griswold said. He said he has been ``shunted to one side" by the White House, which has been more interested in rewarding the religious right.
``I think it has to do with politics and power," Griswold said. ``It has a great deal to do with what Mr. Bush perceives to be his base."
Criticism also comes from representatives of the faith that Bush now observes -- the United Methodist Church.
James Winkler, general secretary of the church's General Board of Church and Society, compared Bush's claim of discrimination against faith-based organizations to his assertion that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
``We heard all the time that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and we heard all the time that there has been all this discrimination against faith-based groups," Winkler said. ``We kept on saying we haven't noticed any discrimination. The grants are there. This really came from the religious right as political payback for their support for the president."
The Southern Baptist Convention, which is the largest of several Baptist organizations, also has strong reservations about Bush's faith-based initiative, preferring to maintain a separation of church and state.
Richard Land, president of the convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, advises Southern Baptist churches not to take federal money. Noting how some British colonies in America financially supported the Anglican Church while persecuting Baptists, he said Baptists have in their ``genetic code" a dislike of such government funding.
Most Jewish groups have not aggressively sought foreign-aid contracts, some leaders said, because they do not seek to convert people, and a prime motivation for religious groups to be active overseas is to win new converts.
``Jews are not missionaries," said Ruth Messinger , president of the American Jewish World Service. ``The whole concept of proselytization is alien to us. Not only alien, almost offensive to us. Jews just don't do that."
Many Christian groups, however, acknowledge that they aim to convert new members, while denying that they proselytize.
``We would like for everyone to become a Christian, that is part of our faith as Christians," said Mark Howard, general counsel of World Vision.
Nonetheless, neither Natsios, who headed USAID from May 2001 to this year, nor Kent Hill, the assistant administrator for Global Health Programs, said they have ever received complaints of a religious contractor violating rules against proselytizing. But Natsios, at a conference last spring, acknowledged that USAID does not monitor groups for proselytizing.
Outsiders point out that members of the administration -- including the president -- sometimes seem to endorse the use of government funds for religious objectives. Speaking before religious leaders in Los Angeles on March 2, 2004, Bush discussed the difficulties of faith groups.
``I think if you ask them their biggest problem, they'd say, `Well, we need to expand, there's more souls to be saved, we need a little extra space for our rescue mission,' " he said. He then assured the groups: ``The government has got resources."
Robert Tuttle, a George Washington University law professor who has studied USAID policies, said he was dumbfounded that the agency chose not to require that aid recipients be told that they don't have to attend services: ``It is scandalous in the sense that if you really are interested in protecting the religious liberty of beneficiaries, then why not inform them of their rights?"
The government's General Accountability Office this year examined 13 federally funded faith-based organizations in the United States that offer prayer or worship. The agency concluded that four of the 13 ``did not appear to understand the requirement to separate these activities in time or location from their program services."
K. Hollyn Hollman, general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee, which represents 14 Baptist organizations, said she is alarmed by the administration's policy that a religious group doesn't have to change its ``religious character" when distributing government aid.
Said Hollman: ``If the religious character of my organization involves evangelizing, changing your life through Christian witness, then I will be tempted to do that in a government-funded program."
The Globe's research found that in the absence of clear standards such as a prohibition on running government programs where services are conducted, religious groups feel free to ask recipients to pray, discuss their spiritual needs, and attend services.
Since many groups combine government and private funds, they feel unrestricted about proselytizing so long as they can say they were using private money. For instance, USAID has paid for tens of millions of dollars in equipment for religious hospitals, where patients learn about the Gospel while receiving care. But since the missionaries themselves are not on the government payroll, no rules apply.
Graham, whose Samaritan's Purse receives USAID funding for medical centers in Sudan and Angola, said in an interview: ``Of course you cannot proselytize with tax dollars, and rightfully so. I agree with that. But it doesn't mean that we can't build buildings, we cannot provide housing and buy bricks and mortar. The proselytizing or the preaching or the giving out of Bibles, people give us funds for those."
More Christian converts
In the dusty village of Lakartinya, Lucia Loltome, a 34-year-old nurse employed by Food for the Hungry, says proudly that she begins and ends each health class with a prayer.
Loltome became a Christian when she attended a Catholic high school. Now she is in charge of projects that involve 730 households and 1,300 children. She is proud of how she laces her lessons about typhoid, parasites, and breast-feeding with education about the Christian God.
``Before 1999, these people were not even going to church," she said. Now, all the contact mothers in the program and nearly every family in nearby villages are churchgoers, Loltome said.
A similar story is told three miles away, in an area known as Nkirmat, where Food for the Hungry began a similar project under the same USAID grant. In Nkirmat, contact mothers began learning about health education in 1999 and recently began breeding milk-producing goats. As with Lakartinya, the USAID program here has been accompanied by a wholesale conversion to Christianity, according to Antonella Kupona, the lead mother of the goat project.
``There was a church built here in 1972 but people were not going because of the traditional beliefs," she said. ``But now they are taking it up in great numbers. . . . As we go for the health education, we also learn about God."