Faith, hope and charity


Photo by Candace diCarlo


The words pour out in rivers when John DiIulio Jr. (C’80) starts talking about his latest big project, running the new White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

The Philly native was picked by President George W. Bush to head the office because DiIulio furnishes secular, scholarly heft to an initiative that some skeptics see as opening a crack in the wall of separation between church and state.

For DiIulio, who is taking a leave from his positions as Fox Leadership Professor and director of the Fox Leadership Program, the position provides a golden opportunity. He can put to the test his theories about the effectiveness of faith-based programs in combating social ills by conducting what amounts to a giant real-time research project.
You can hear the enthusiasm bursting forth as he describes what he hopes to do during his tenure there.

In a 45-minute press conference that was short on questions and long on answers, DiIulio spoke about, among other things, the office’s purpose, the relevance of his Philly background to the job, how politics makes strange bedfellows, and the church-state question.

On how being from Philadelphia is an asset in this job, and whether the city can serve as a model for community-based social action:
I think Philadelphia is the model city for everything. That’s my bias. The late, great Penn sociologist Digby Baltzell compared us unfavorably to Boston, because we don’t have a leadership class, supposedly, as opposed to there. But hey, take a closer look. This is a city that has stepped up and met a number of challenges and I think we’ve got a lot of people from all different sectors — corporate, philanthropic, mayor, city administration, who are trying to figure out ways to do right and improve the quality of life here and make it a better place.

I think in terms of the initiatives we’re talking about here, Philadelphia has a vibrant independent sector, both religious and secular. Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America are headquartered in this city. Pew Charitable Trusts are headquartered in this city. Some of the finest examples of community-serving ministry in the country, if not the world, that reach out to the poor, are headquartered, spun off, came from this city. A lot of the stuff that’s been going on in Boston came out of traditions and people who cut their teeth in this city.

In regard to my own Philadelphia roots, I think the one thing you can say about Philadelphians is we’re kind of unpredictable. We have a pretty strong reality principle. You know, we’re kind of like the guy from Missouri, show me. I think that probably more than anything else is the one thing that’s kept me more or less sane in the last 15 years and I think, I hope it will keep me sane inside the Beltway the time that I’m there.

On what he sees as the major goals of the office:
As I understand it, what we’ve got is three major sets of objectives. ...The first set of objectives is increasing charitable giving, both human and financial.

Number two is the more mundane business of really trying to figure out how the federal government spends its money and how that money now flows and with what results. What the president is asking the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives to do is just to make sure that when it comes to the rubber-meets-the-road implementation of extant federal see who at the grassroots level is administering those programs, and who’s not in those funding networks and why.

The third prong is to identify really promising models of public-private cooperation that involve community-based organizations both religious and secular. You can imagine having sort of a [Secretary of State Colin] Powell Doctrine of domestic policy — identify vital interests; have some clear goals and objectives. You will have universal access to best-quality after-school literacy programs by the year dot-dot-dot; we will make a mentor available to every child whose parent or guardian wants one by the year dot-dot-dot in the following cities at citywide scale, and do that in a way that — third element of the Powell Doctrine — applies overwhelming, targeted human and financial force.

The president wants a set of results you can point to, and so to me, the most exciting parts of this really is the opportunity to look around the country, talk to mayors, talk to folks who have been at this for a long time and have the best ground-up knowledge of it.

On the apparent disconnect between President Bush’s personal concern for society’s worst off and Republican Party philosophy:
I’d like them all to be Democrats. I’d like you all to be Democrats. Please sign up on the way out. We can take care of that. I think there’s an interesting, honest debate that’s going to go on over the next several years.

The president is not a conventional libertarian Republican. The president is not allergic to government. The president said in July of 1999 that the government must do certain things, and Medicaid was one of the things he emphasized, which is one of the things that really heartened me, because Medicaid is the single most important social program bar none. The president has been consistent about that as governor, through the campaign, and was consistent about it in his inaugural address and [during] the last two weeks. That’s different from what some had thought or at least suggested as the dominant view within the Republican Party.

I think there’s a realization now, and the president has communicated it quite eloquently, that we really need to figure out better ways of doing the people’s business.

On the possibility that Federal funds to faith-based organizations might be used to promote religion:
Ninety-five percent of the independent sector, including the religious sector, simply does not, as a matter of course, make entering the buildings, receiving the services, participating in the programs contingent upon anything having to do with proselytizing, attending church.

Let’s talk about the possibility of this nasty organization that has a nasty ideology that’s going to get a grant to do something good. There’s three things to be said about that. The first is, go and look at the networks of government providers purely on the secular side and see if you can’t find some nasty organizations. Secondly, [there is] the problem of, won’t some of these monies somehow bleed into their religious work? As [Corporation for National Service Director and former Indianapolis Mayor] Steve Goldsmith likes to say, “We’ll buy the soup, they can buy the Bibles,” to which the response is, Well, if they’re spending $10 on soup and $10 on Bibles and you give them $10 for the soup, they’ll spend $20 on Bibles. Could happen. Of course, that never happens in the secular world, right? I mean, money’s not fungible there.

Let’s, however, say for the sake of argument that despite the fact that those who want to step up have to run a gauntlet, let’s say that one in — pick your favorite denominator — one in 1,000, one in 10,000, one in 100,000 end up going to a group that uses some of the money to do nasty things. If we follow [that logic], we would not leave this building now for fear that an airplane would fall on our head. I understand the concern, [but] guess what, folks? It’s happening now already. And you’ve got to weigh the potentially enormous social good against this small possibility of creating real or imagined horribles.

Originally published on March 1, 2001