An Uncharitable Choice: The Faith-Based Takeover of Federal Programs

About Frederick Clarkson

Click here to see the full neoliberalism issue of The Public Eye magazine

Click here to see the full neoliberalism issue of The Public Eye magazine

Two presidents in a row have increasingly steered federal grants and contracts to conservative Christian groups—including houses of worship.

**This article appears in PRA’s Fall, 2014 issue of The Public Eye magazine, a special edition on neoliberalism and the Right**

The privatization of public services has long been a feature of neoliberalism. It has also been part of the domestic and global agenda of the Christian Right, and more broadly, of conservative evangelicalism. The free-market agenda of the economic elite and the interests of elite evangelicalism found common cause and a historic opportunity during the Clinton administration. It is a relationship that continues to this day under the rubric of the Faith-Based Initiative.

The forerunner to this groundbreaking notion was injected into policy during the Clinton administration’s efforts to “change welfare as we know it.” Called Charitable Choice, it was the first time Congress gave explicit legislative direction to federal agencies to provide religious institutions with grants and contracts to carry out federal programs on an equal basis with other groups—without requiring that religious groups separate out their religious agendas.1 Critics presciently observed this risked problematic entanglements between church and state. Even President Clinton was concerned enough to issue signing statements as Charitable Choice provisions were added to federal legislation. On one such occasion, he said that his administration would not “permit governmental funding of religious organizations that do not or cannot separate their religious activities from [federally funded program] activities,” because such funding would violate the Constitution.2

Senators John Ashcroft (R-MO) and Dan Coats (R-IN) led the successful effort to insert Charitable Choice into the 1996 welfare reform bill.3 The intentions of backers varied, as they still do, but the effect has been to begin to privatize government-funded services, and in particular to increase the capacity of conservative Christian institutions to provide such services in the U.S. and around the world. But its birth was a relatively quiet moment in American legislative history. As David Kuo, an aide to Sen. Ashcroft and later the Deputy Director of the original White House office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in the Bush administration, recounts, they picked the name “Charitable Choice” because it sounded innocuous. “It didn’t draw attention to anything religious,” he recalled:

Charitable choice was something anyone could support and few people could justify voting against. The name just worked. The bill was drafted within months. Most religious groups loved it. Scarcely a peep came from liberal advocacy groups. The lack of liberal objection likely also came from the perception that it was just a small, relatively insignificant amendment. The greatest pushback came from other compassionate conservatives who wanted the bill to allow for more religious content.4

Once the Charitable Choice precedent was set, follow-up efforts to pass more expansive legislation did not succeed. But President George W. Bush was able to implement a more limited program5 via executive order, which was subsequently continued and expanded under President Obama. This effort created a dozen offices6 within the White House and a number of federal departments—most prominently, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), but also including the Departments of State and Homeland Security, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Agency for International Development. These programs have taken money out of existing, primarily social service programs and redirected the funds to religious agencies. But since many of the conservative Christian bodies that wanted to receive Faith-Based Initiative funds lacked the institutional capacity and experience to be eligible, there was an early emphasis on training, capacity building, and technical assistance so that groups that wanted to become eligible could be shoehorned in.7

This redirection of resources also tended to politically empower religious organizations and leaders, such as prominent evangelical pastor Rick Warren, whose economic view tends toward laissez-faire neoliberalism.8 Warren’s popularity has helped in recent years to strengthen the political constituency for free-market policies.

None of this was a coincidence, since one of the driving forces behind this reorientation of federal policy was a secretive, business-oriented network of conservative Christianity known as The Family. The group made news during the 2008 election campaign when such major figures as Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John McCain were shown to have varying degrees of a relationship with the powerful network. Later, the sex scandal involving Sen. John Ensign (R-NV) was shown to involve a Family-owned condo called the C Street House, which also gained national notoriety.9

The Family

Jeff Sharlet, in his 2008 book The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, exposed the historic relationship between elements of conservative Christianity and the anti-labor, anti-government deregulation agenda (and other elements) of the business lobby. Founded as a political network of anti-labor Christian businessmen, the organization has vastly expanded into a quiet, behind-the-scenes “old boys” network of people who use their personal relationship with Jesus to facilitate business and political dealings in the U.S. and many other countries.10

Sharlet explained that “faith-based initiatives are as liberal as they are fundamentalist, their privatization of social services an exercise of the unstated conviction of classical liberalism that the free market is absolute and yet requires a government subsidy. They are to religion,” Sharlet continued, “what Clinton-era ‘free trade’ deals were to labor: a ‘rationalization’ in the name of ‘efficiency.’”11

Indeed, the federal funds redirected to faith-based services have enjoyed a certain de facto exemption from standard levels of accountability and transparency. The notion of exemptions for religious organizations from federal laws and policies has been expanded in the wake of the Hobby Lobby v. Burwell decision of the U.S. Supreme Court. The Hobby Lobby decision likely portends future efforts to widen the range of exemptions along with the range of organizations qualified to claim them.

Just as neoliberals claim that the free market is more “efficient” than government, there has been a similar claim about faith-based social service delivery.12 But there was little evidence for this. Indeed, John DiIulio Jr, the first director of the faith-based office under President Bush, has said there is no evidence that faith-based agencies perform any better than non-religious providers of social services.13

Similarly, David Kuo revealed that there was no evidence to support another of the claims used to justify Charitable Choice, (later renamed the Faith-Based Initiative)—that there was discrimination against religiously based grant applicants, particularly with regard to hiring practices. In many ways, they were proposing a solution in search of a problem. “Alarmed, we looked under every rock and rule and regulation and report. Finding these examples became a huge priority. Without them, the powerful political rhetoric of government discrimination against faith-based groups of religious hiring would have to disappear … If President Bush was making the world a better place for faith-based groups, we had to show it was a really bad place to begin with. But in fact, it really wasn’t that bad at all.”14

Kuo later became disaffected, and wrote a book about it.15 He had hoped that Bush’s campaign promise of “compassionate conservatism”—providing $8 billion new dollars for fighting poverty in the U.S.—would come true. But he found himself helping direct a vast amount of faith-based patronage money and activities designed to influence electoral outcomes in key states under the direction of the White House political team. Even more galling, there was no real increase in anti-poverty funds for anti-poverty work. Kuo did, however, observe a lot of cronyism and self-dealing leading to a variety of scandals.16

As a presidential candidate, Obama promised to clean up the faith-based program and hold federal grantees accountable. “If you get a federal grant, you can’t use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can’t discriminate against them,” Obama said during a July 2008 campaign speech. But a 2014 investigation by Andy Kopsa in The Nation magazine found that “little has changed.”

Kopsa writes: “An entire federally funded evangelical economy took root during the Bush years, and under Obama it continues to thrive.” Kopsa documented, for example, tens of millions of dollars going to fund ineffective, religiously based abstinence and AIDS education programs in the U.S. and in Africa, as well as millions going to religiously based, anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers in the U.S., also for abstinence education. Millions more have been diverted from Medicaid programs to fund heterosexual marriage promotion via state affiliates of Focus on the Family (FOF) and the Family Research Council (FRC). Kopsa reported, for example, that The Family Leader, a politically important Christian Right organization in Iowa (and the state FOF and FRC affiliate), took $3 million in federal funds to conduct “Healthy Marriage Workshops” while simultaneously waging a campaign to amend the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage. “After being outed in the press as an HHS grantee in 2010,” Kopsa reported, “the group denied using federal money inappropriately but requested to opt out of their last year of funding.”17

And all this happened even as the Obama administration strengthened the proscription against federal funding of abortion. The Obama administration, in the course of seeking to pass the Affordable Care Act, declared its intention to make the legislation “abortion neutral.” Yet in a remarkably Orwellian redefinition of “neutral,” it adopted the anti-abortion provisions of the Hyde Amendment, which in the 1970s had proscribed using federal Medicaid funds to provide abortions.18


Kuo, like Ashcroft and Coats, was a member of The Family (aka The Fellowship), a semi-secret society of what Sharlet calls “elite fundamentalists.” Since its founding as an anti-labor organization of Christian businessmen in the early 20th century, The Family has grown to become a behind-the-scenes network of power and influence extending across party lines. In many ways, it is as transpartisan as neoliberalism itself and an increasingly important transmitter of neoliberal ideology.

The Family’s most public role is as the host and organizer of the National Prayer Breakfast, at which every president since Eisenhower has been a featured speaker. But The Family mostly functions as a quiet broker of conservative Christian ideas, personnel, and relationships. Sharlet describes the morphing of elite business and Christian fundamentalism this way: “[E]lite fundamentalism, certain in its entitlement, responds in this world with a politics of noblesse oblige, the missionary impulse married to military and economic power. The result is empire. Not the old imperialism … Rather the soft empire of America that across the span of the twentieth century recruited fundamentalism to its cause even as it seduced liberalism to its service… .”19

The use of religious institutions to promote the privatization of a variety of government services has been shrouded in a faith-based fog. As David Kuo observed, it became easier for political appointees to direct federal funds to politically favored groups while resisting press and Congressional scrutiny. And, as Andy Kopsa demonstrated, transparency and accountability are shockingly lacking, even in an administration that has promised both.

It should be a matter for public debate that political appointees in both parties are not only diverting federal funds to pursue political agendas well beyond the intent of Congress but also are deepening the government’s reliance on religious institutions as service providers. These trends do not seem to be aberrations and glitches in a fresh approach to the delivery of government services so much as a transpartisan program of neoliberal transformation of our government’s functions at all levels.

 Share on Twitte Button  Share on Facebook Button

1. Jeff Sharlet, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (New York: HarperCollins, 2008), 381.
2. William J. Clinton, “Statement on Signing the Consolidated Appropriations Act, FY 2001,” Dec. 21, 2000,
3. Jeff Sharlet, The Family.
4. David Kuo, Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction (New York: Free Press, 2007), 84-86, Kindle Edition.
5. Bill Berkowitz, “Tilting at Faith-Based Windmills: Over a Year in the Life of President Bush’s Faith-based Initiative,” The Public Eye, Summer 2002,
6. “Federal Centers for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships,”
7. David Kuo, Tempting Faith; see also Ted Slutz, “Congregations and Charitable Choice,” The Polis Center, Religion & Community (vol. 4, #5, 2000).
8. Bill Anderson, “Correction from Pastor Rick Warren,”, Feb. 2, 2008,
9. Scott Horton, “Inside C Street: Six Questions for Jeff Sharlet,” Harper’s, Sept. 29, 2010,
10. Frederick Clarkson, “All in The Family,” The Public Eye, Summer 2008,
11. Sharlet, The Family, 382.
12. Eyal Press, “Lead Us Not into Temptation,” The American Prospect, Dec. 19, 2001,
13. “Testimony of the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Executive Director Americans United For Separation of Church and State,” U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties, Nov. 18, 2010.
14. Kuo, Tempting Faith, 208-209.
15. Kuo, Tempting Faith.
16. Bill Berkowitz, “Faith-Based Initiatives in the Obama Administration?,” Religion Dispatches, June 15, 2009; Rick Cohen,” Fides: Faith and Money in the Bush Administration,” Non-Profit Quarterly, Mar. 21, 2006; Peter Wallsten, Tom Hamburger, and Nicholas Riccardi, “Bush Rewarded by Black Pastors’ Faith: His stands, backed by funding of ministries, redefined the GOP’s image with some clergy,” Los Angeles Times, Jan. 18, 2005,
17. Andy Kopsa, “Obama’s Evangelical Gravy Train,” Nation, July 2014,
18. Frederick Clarkson, “From Right-Wing to Pro-Choice: The Shifting Goalposts of ‘Abortion Neutrality,’” Religion Dispatches, Dec. 9, 2009,; and Frederick Clarkson, “Anti-Abortion Strategy in the Age of Obama,” The Public Eye, Winter 2009,; see also Frederick Clarkson, “More Creeping Religious Rightism in the Democratic Party,” Talk to Action, Dec. 12, 2009,
19. Sharlet, The Family, 386.

Frederick Clarkson, a Senior Research Analyst at Political Research Associates, has written about politics and religion for more than three decades. He is the author of Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy and editor of Dispatches from the Religious Left: The Future of Faith and Politics in America. Follow him on Twitter at @FredClarkson.