Black Ministers Cheer Bush's Faith-Based Initiative

By Christine Hall | July 7, 2008 | 8:03 PM EDT

( - President George W. Bush unveiled his faith-based initiative Monday, which will give federal money to community programs run by religious groups. Critics say the initiative violates the constitutional clause prohibiting government from establishing religion.

"Government will never be replaced by charities and community groups. Yet, when we see social needs in America, my administration will look first to faith-based programs...We will not discriminate against them," said Bush.

President Bush signed two executive orders. One will establish a White House office of religion-based community initiatives. The other orders five Cabinet-level agencies to create committees to work with religious groups.

The group Americans United for Separation of Church and State threaten to file a suit against the plan.

But, Black ministers expressed hope that President Bush's newly announced Office of Faith-based Initiative will become an effective tool for helping struggling Americans build a better life. They also suggested that through these efforts, Bush might be able to mend fences with black voters, who voted for Democrat Al Gore in the November election, nine to one.

"It's a very good move, what President Bush is doing in terms of seeking to use the faith community as a means of serving and uplifting the quality of life in communities," said Rev. Reginald Jackson, executive director for the Black Ministers Council of New Jersey. "My only concern would be that it be something he do aggressively, not passively."

"It is a very good step that he's trying to take," agreed Charles Blake, Jr., director of community relations for the West Angeles Church of God in Los Angeles.

Blake's father and other members of the clergy from around the country were in Washington, D.C. last week to outline their priorities and hopes for Bush's faith-based initiative. The group showcased a letter to the President asking for a long list of enhanced or new federal programs, such as universal medical coverage for children, more taxpayer dollars for child care, a plan for "achieving zero prison growth," and funding for extra-curricular programs that service urban youth.

Rev. Floyd Flake, a former member of the U.S. House from New York and a current minister and education reformer, says the letter was in response to Bush's request for a wish list.

"We were encouraged to put a list together to share with him, so that [the administration will have it] as they begin to look at the areas where we are either directly involved already or would be involved if we had the resources," said Flake.

"Much of what we all submit will probably not be included, but we know what the weaknesses are. We know what the problems are in the communities. I think he's trying to help define what those problems are, because I'm not so sure that, from the government perspective, they are aware," Flake said.

Flake, a long-time advocate for "charitable choice" partnerships between the government and faith-based groups, will meet with President Bush Monday to discuss priorities. Flake named education, criminal justice reform and housing as his top issues.

"Education is still the key, because you can't rebuild the communities without addressing that problem," said Flake. "That means creating mechanisms, like additional funds for charter schools ... and his demand for accountability and standards. If that is applied fairly to the worst performing districts, even, then it's beneficial and it turns those schools around," he said.

Success will only be achieved, according to Jackson, if the Bush Administration and the charitable groups combine funding and effort.

"I would hate to see [the faith-based initiative] become, for lack of a better term, just another government program," said Jackson. "It's something that could be just as important as what he seeks to do ... with education. If you put crumbs out, or if you put out something that's not substantial, I don't necessarily mean just in terms of dollars, I mean in terms of effort, then you get little in return.

"I think if this president takes an up-in your-face attitude toward the minority community, that would challenge [them] to respond back," said Jackson. "I think he might be pleasantly surprised. If he proves himself to be genuine in terms of what he wants to do, I think the minority community will prove itself in terms of its response. It basically ought to be on the part of his side and the minority community side a show-me attitude. You show me, we'll show you."

Flake agrees. "If everything happens good for those communities, it's bound to be beneficial for him, just as was the case with some of those same kinds of initiatives in Texas. In his first election in Texas he got eight percent [of the black vote, but] in the second election, he got 30 percent. He did not do it by pandering. He did it by providing services. I think that's what he's trying to do on a much larger scale now," said Flake.