November 2002 Church & State | Featured
TV preacher Pat Robertson surprised virtually everyone last year when he criticized President George W. Bush's "faith-based" initiative.

On the Feb. 20, 2001 episode of his nationally televised "700 Club" program, Robertson, one of the nation's most reliable friends of Bush and the Republican Party, condemned the controversial plan to fund houses of worship with tax dollars.

"[T]his thing could be a real Pandora's box," Robertson said. "And what seems to be such a great initiative can rise up to bite the organizations as well as the federal government. And I'm a little concerned about it, frankly."

Though the remarks sparked media attention, Robertson wasn't done. Three weeks later, the Virginia Beach-based evangelist returned to the topic, warning his television audience that the Bush plan could threaten the vitality of religious groups.

"[F]ederal rules will envelope these organizations, they'll begin to be nurtured, if I can use that term, on federal money, and then they can't get off of it," Robertson said. "It'll be like a narcotic; they can't then free themselves later on."

Despite the presumed peril religious groups face from accepting public funds, it appears that Robertson is willing to risk addiction when it comes to his own operation.

On Oct. 3, the Bush administration announced a series of grants to 21 religious and community groups as part of the White House faith-based scheme. Among the recipients was Operation Blessing, a religious charity created and run by Robertson.

The fact that Robertson would seek public funding through the Bush faith-based initiative months after denouncing the president's plan raised accusations of hypocrisy from critics of the controversial TV preacher. Just as importantly, the Bush administration is facing criticism for funneling tax dollars to Robertson notwithstanding the evangelist's record of vitriolic and divisive rhetoric against political opponents and religious minorities.

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State and a leading critic of Robertson and the Bush faith-based plan, found the grant announcement troubling.

"Robertson is one of the chief purveyors of religious bigotry in America," Lynn said. "To reward him with government funding is an insult to every American taxpayer.

"Robertson was one of the earliest critics of the faith-based scheme, but I guess 30 pieces of silver were enough to change his mind," Lynn added.

Lynn pointed to a series of hateful remarks Robertson has used to demonstrate why the TV preacher is unsuitable for public funding.

Robertson, for example, generated national disgust last fall when he blamed church-state separation for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks while appearing on the Sept. 13 edition of the "700 Club."

"We have a court that has essentially stuck its finger in God's eye and said we're going to legislate you out of the schools," Robertson said just 48 hours after the attacks. "We're going to take your commandments from off the courthouse steps in various states. We're not going to let little children read the commandments of God. We're not going to let the Bible be read, no prayer in our schools. We have insulted God at the highest levels of our government. And, then we say, 'Why does this happen?' Well, why it's happening is that God Almighty is lifting his protection from us."

Robertson has also launched vitriolic attacks on Islam. In a September 2002 appearance on Fox News Channel's "Hannity & Colmes," he said the Prophet Muhammad was "a killer" and added, "To think that this is a peaceful religion is fraudulent." In 1997, Robertson sparked complaints when he called Islam "a religion of the slavers."

Other faith traditions have also come under fire from Robertson. In 1991, he said Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians reflect "the spirit of the Antichrist." The same year, Robertson said he believed Hindus are "devil worshipers."

Ironically, Bush said last year that under his vision of the faith-based initiative, no one who "preaches hate" would be eligible for public funding. The president's remarks were in reference to a question about the potential for the Nation of Islam to get tax aid, but in light of Robertson's record of enmity, many wonder why the Bush administration failed to apply the same standard before awarding a grant to Robertson.

"Anyone who exhibits such bigoted views is unworthy to receive taxpayer dollars," said Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "Mr. Robertson should be repudiated, not rewarded, for his Islamophobic hate speech."

Robertson's application for funding also drew criticism from the right. Cal Thomas, a conservative syndicated col­um­nist, said the White House grants should not be awarded to religious charities and the former Christian Coalition leader was wrong to seek the funds.

"Government should not decide who deserves funding and who does not," Thomas said. "That is an endorsement of one religion or religions over others. Furthermore, the day will come when religious groups will be required to remain silent about their beliefs if they want to continue receiving government checks.

"Robertson was right to warn of a 'Pandora's box,'" Thomas added. "But he has now opened that box and is taking the money. It doesn't take a prophet to see trouble ahead."

Even the Robertson charity that received the faith-based grant, Operation Blessing, is not without controversy. While Robertson formed the group, and still serves as chairman of the board, it is his use of the group's resources that has generated intense legal scrutiny.

Operation Blessing, a $66-million-a-year agency, describes its principal goal as "providing short-term relief and development assistance to economically disadvantaged people and victims of disaster throughout the world." Despite that stated mission, charges of fraud and abuse plagued the group in the 1990s.

In 1994, Robertson used his "700 Club" program to raise funds for the charity. Robertson told viewers Opera­tion Blessing was using cargo planes to aid refugees from Rwanda who had fled into the neighboring nation of Zaire (now known as Congo) to escape a violent civil war.

Investigators later discovered that Rob­ertson was using the planes, intended for relief efforts, to haul mining equipment in and out of Zaire for the African Development Corporation (ADC), Rob­ertson's for-profit diamond-mining company. Robertson later said the planes had proved impractical for relief work and insisted he had reimbursed the charity for ADC's use of them.

The Virginian-Pilot newspaper noted that state officials criticized the charity for sloppy bookkeeping and for mixing non-profit and for-profit activities. It also pointed out that Robertson reimbursed Operation Blessing for ADC's use of its airplanes in two stages. Investigators determined that ADC owed Operation Blessing $468,773, and Robertson ultimately gave the group $572,597, although $400,000 of the debt was not paid until two months into the official investigation.

Investigators with Virginia's Office of Consumer Affairs concluded that Rob­ertson "willfully induced contributions from the public through the use of misleading statements and other implications." In fact, the office recommended prosecuting Robertson in 1999 for making deceptive appeals about his charity but was overruled by the attorney general's office. Lawyers in the attorney general's office, headed at the time by Mark Earley, agreed Robertson had made inaccurate statements but decided against prosecution. (Earley, a long-time political ally of Robertson, accepted $35,000 in campaign contributions from Robert­son in 1997.)

Operation Blessing's grant came as part of the first wave of funding an­nounce­ments made by the Bush administration's Health and Human Services Department (HHS). The agency was responsible for doling out $30 million through something called the "Compas­sion Capital Fund," appropriated by Congress to provide technical support for charities, such as streamlining the process for creating non-profit organizations.

The administration's use of the Fund generated controversy over the summer when it appeared the White House was using the project to woo African-American voters and support vulnerable Republican candidates in the 2002 elections (see "Faith-Based Flimflam," October 2002 Church & State).

Now, however, the Compassion Capital Fund is raising new questions based on concerns over the groups receiving a slice of the $30 million pie and what those groups can do with the money.

Under the system created through the Fund, religious and community groups receive grants, and in turn, use these taxpayer funds to grant "sub-awards" to other religious and community organizations for their operations. When applying this situation to Operation Blessing's grant, the White House has given Robertson tax dollars that he will then distribute to other groups as he sees fit.

AU's Lynn believes giving Robertson and other religious leaders control over the distribution of public funds through the faith-based initiative violates the Constitution.

"Giving religious groups control over public funds is a blatant violation of the Constitution," Lynn said. "Under the First Amendment, religious ministries shouldn't become an arm of the government."

Operation Blessing's grant this year is $500,000. If Congress continues to appropriate tax dollars for the Com­passion Capital Fund, Robertson's group will take in an additional $500,000 each of the next two years, for a total of $1.5 million in public funds.

The administration's recent grant announcements have renewed questions about the president's beleaguered faith-based initiative.

For example, during congressional debate over the faith-based initiative, controversies plagued the plan. Many lawmakers from both sides of the aisle noted that religious groups, under the Bush plan, would receive public funds but could still discriminate on religious grounds in employment. Moreover, there were additional questions as to whether publicly funded ministries could pressure benefi­ciaries to participate in religious activities.

Those same questions apply to the grantees of the Compassion Capital Fund. Robertson's Operation Blessing, as well as the 20 other recipients of federal funds, will receive the money without safeguards that prevent publicly funded discrimination in hiring and helping beneficiaries.

Robertson's grant outraged many, but Operation Blessing's award was not the only grant that raised eyebrows.

Another group, the National Center for Faith Based Initiative, was awarded $700,000, which could ultimately become $2.1 million if Congress continues to fund the Compassion Capital Fund over the next two years.

The National Center, an outfit based in West Palm Beach, Fla., was created by Bishop Harold Calvin Ray, senior pastor of the Redemptive Life Fellowship Church. Ray has played a frequent but varied role in the ongoing debate over the faith-based initiative since the plan's unveiling in January 2001.

For example, Ray was a prominent force in helping Rep. J.C. Watts host a "Faith-Based Summit" on Capitol Hill in April 2001. Ray's role was demonstrated on the eve of the summit, when the trial lawyer-turned-preacher hosted a closed-door reception attended by Attorney General John Ashcroft. In addition, at a press conference during the summit, Ray was the only clergyman permitted to address reporters. The Wall Street Journal even described Ray as "the president's strongest ally in the faith-based effort."

For some, Ray's high profile was disconcerting, considering the bishop's unabashed hostility toward church-state separation.

In an interview with Charisma magazine in February 2001, Ray said, "The sep­aration of church and state is a fiction. The nation is the kingdom of God, period."

Ray's theology also appears to be based on the idea that Christians who share his worldview deserve special power over society. In the same Char­isma interview, Ray added, "If the wealth of the wicked is to be laid up for the just, then there is some more work we need to do."

In his self-published book, Creating Wealth, Determining Destiny, Ray wrote, "God expects us [Christians] to take dominion." He added that faith-based enterprises "make an impressive march toward that goal."

Ray went from being an important inside player to a disaffected outsider in a matter of months. By the summer of 2001, Ray was blasting the White House for not doing enough to secure funding for religious ministries.

A year later, however, Ray is happy again. He's set to collect millions in taxpayer dollars, he's traveling the country to promote government-sponsored religious social programs and he's even formed a self-described "alliance" with Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice to provide legal assistance to ministries that receive funding through the Bush initiative.

Among the other "demonstration grants" announced by HHS were $1.1 million for the Christian Community Health Fellowship, $1 million for Catholic Charities of Central New Mexico and $1 million for Mennonite Economic Development Associates.

Dare Mighty Things, a New Hamp­shire-based consulting company, was awarded $2.2 million to serve as a national "resource center" for all U.S. charities. The grant became controversial when research showed that Dare Mighty Things has close ties to Chuck Colson's Prison Fellowship ministry, a Religious Right group that seeks to convert inmates to fundamentalist Christianity.

HHS has reported that about 500 groups applied for subsidies through the Compassion Capital Fund, but only 25 received grants. While several faith-based charities received money, all of the religious recipients were affiliated with Christian ministries, most of them evangelical.

This aspect of the funding leaves critics wondering if the Bush administration is interested in helping charities with technical assistance the stated goal of the Compassion Capital Fund or helping advance a religious agenda.

After all, it was Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.) an ally of the White House on this issue who said in a recent interview that the president's goal with the faith-based initiative is to help "overtly Christian organizations pick people up, change their character, convert them regardless of what religion they are, and change their lives."