Bloodied but unbowed by his stint as George W. Bush’s first “faith czar,” alumnus and political science professor John. J. DiIulio is more convinced than ever of America’s faith-based future—and he has a new book that tells why.

In line with its subtitle—A Centrist Blueprint for America’s Faith-Based Future—a recurring device in Political Science Professor John J. DiIulio Jr. C’80 G’80’s new book, Godly Republic, is the refutation of extreme left- and right-wing “myths” about the role of religion in American government with a middle-ground “TRUTH.”  Basically, though, the book’s argument flows from the first of these verities: “The framers of the U.S. Constitution founded a new government that they hoped would guide America’s rise, not as either a secular state or a Christian nation, but as a godly republic marked by religious pluralism.”

From this, DiIulio reasons, there is nothing in law preventing the federal government from providing funding to religious-affiliated, or “faith-based,” groups for the same services—daycare, drug counseling, welfare-to-work assistance, and so on—for which secular groups are eligible for support. And, since such groups are actually performing those services in many of the nation’s most blighted areas, assisting them in their efforts is likely to be an effective way to deliver federal dollars aimed at serving the poor.

This “level playing field” view, according to DiIulio, is shared by the great majority of the American people, and even by their elected representatives in moments when they are not swayed to profess otherwise for partisan reasons. (Sadly, those moments have been few since 2000.)

Currently the Frederic Fox Leadership Professor of Politics, Religion, and Civil Society, DiIulio was raised Catholic, working-class, and Democratic in South and Southwest Philadelphia before Penn, a Harvard Ph.D., and a tenured professorship at Princeton [“John DiIulio Gets Religion,” October 1997].  Despite this charmed professional progress, DiIulio came close to chucking the academy back in the 1990s to become an advocate for faith-based programs and work directly with religious groups, particularly urban, Black and Latino churches. (He was dissuaded by Princeton’s then-dean of the faculty, one Dr. Amy Gutmann.) 

In 1999 DiIulio joined Penn’s faculty. He became known to the general public a year later as President George W. Bush’s “faith czar”—and for calling certain White House operatives “Mayberry Machiavellis” after resigning his post as the first head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. He had always planned to leave after six months—he stayed eight—but he freely admits to a deep sense of frustration at how a bipartisan effort to help “the least, the last, the lost, the poorest among us in places like our own city of Philadelphia” was transformed into a major battleground in the culture wars.

While President Bush for the most part escapes DiIulio’s ire, the author has plenty of blunt criticism for other Republicans and Democrats who played politics with the faith-based issue, pandering to their extreme conservative-evangelical and secular-liberal bases, respectively, and for the journalists who aided and abetted that effort. He also points the finger at other entrenched interests—particularly the large organizations, religious and secular, non-profit and for-profit—that currently enjoy the lion’s share of federal largesse and are inclined to keep it that way.

Despite the powerful forces arrayed against the “faith-based” idea, DiIulio hasn’t given up on it. In Godly Republic—equal parts historical analysis, political survivor’s tale, research brief, and sermon—he lays out his case for its historical legitimacy and present and future importance in cogent prose that rises at moments to eloquence. Though written with his students in mind, he says, the book also sends a powerful message to a future administration in a perhaps less polarized, more receptive era. (Regardless of whether the administration receiving that message is Democratic or Republican, it will probably have to do without the messenger, though.)

An excerpt from Godly Republic begins on page 4. DiIulio also spoke with Gazette editor John Prendergast about the book. Here is an edited version of that conversation.

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