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GOP luring voters with talk of grants to church groups

©Washington Post
September 15, 2002

Republicans are using the prospect of federal grants from the Bush administration's "faith-based initiative" to boost support for GOP candidates, especially among black voters in states and districts with tight congressional races this fall.

Top government officials overseeing the program, designed to funnel federal social service grants to religious groups, have appeared at Republican-sponsored events and with GOP candidates in at least six states. The events often target black audiences, such as a recent South Carolina seminar to which about 1,600 black ministers were invited. The events' hosts explained how the federal program will distribute about $25-million in grants to community groups affiliated with churches and other private-sector institutions.

The South Carolina event, on July 19, was sponsored by the state Republican Party. Those who attended received followup letters, on GOP stationery, explaining how to apply for grant money. Ron Thomas, the party's political director, called the event a "phenomenal success" that helped "put a human face on the party again."

Bush has repeatedly said the faith-based initiative is not political. On Feb. 1, when he announced that Jim Towey would replace John DiIulio as head of the program, the president said Towey "understands there are things more important than political parties. And one of those things more important than political parties is to help heal the nation's soul."

White House spokeswoman Ann Womack said Towey will talk to anyone about the initiative, regardless of political affiliation. "The bottom line is that Jim travels all over the country to talk about the president's faith-based initiative," she said. She cited a Manhattan appearance attended by Democratic Reps. Charles Rangel and Anthony Weiner, although she could not cite an example of joint appearances with Democrats facing tough election fights.

Some lawmakers who opposed the president's faith-based initiative say they feared that it could be used for political purposes.

"Madison and Jefferson understood the lesson of human history: that when you start combining the power of politics and the power of religion, you end up with politicians using religion as means to their own ends," said Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Texas.

Another critic of the initiative, Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the possibility of grants is "being dangled to select church pastors in the African-American community as a kind of lure, with the expectation that those churches will get out and support Republican candidates."

In Kentucky, Rep. Anne Northup, R-Ky. -- facing a tough re-election campaign -- invited Towey to explain the grant program's potential when she toured a heavily black section of her district near Louisville. The Aug. 29 visit focused on the church-based Shiloh Community Renewal Center. Northup, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, recently won approval for a $400,000 grant to the center.

The grant was part of the regular appropriations process and not from the new "compassion fund," but Towey described the center as "a model of what a faith-based organization can be."

In South Carolina, where the GOP is fighting to keep the Senate seat being vacated by Strom Thurmond, the state GOP sponsored a "seminar on Faith-Based and Community Initiatives" primarily for black ministers in the Columbia area. Jeremy White, director of outreach for the White House Faith-Based Initiative, gave the keynote speech.

Ten days later, Thomas, the state GOP political director, sent each attendee a packet with detailed information on "all the points of contact for faith-based offices ... and information on the Compassion Fund."

Thomas said the seminar was "not necessarily a political event." He said it "got huge press coverage, press and TV. It was a great, great success."

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