President George W. Bush continues to seek to increase his support from the African American community – most recently with a pledge to persuade corporate foundations to give more money to faith-based charities.
In a closed-door session at the White House with 17 black ministers and civic leaders — his second such meeting since January – Bush said the White House plans to sponsor a March summit to bring together corporate foundation leaders and faith-based social service organizations, many of which are affiliated with black churches.
The Administration plans to focus on major corporate foundations with policies limiting or forbidding contributions to religious charities. Those include foundations run by Ford Motor Company, General Motors, IBM, Exxon Mobil, and Citigroup.
Corporate Foundations are responsible for some $12 billion in grants each year.
Bush first raised the faith-based issue four years ago, when he said in a commencement speech at the University of Notre Dame, "The federal government will not discriminate against faith-based organizations, and neither should corporate America."
But his latest pledge came as part of increasing attention by the White House to working with African American religious leaders.
Black pastors were credited with increasing Bush's share of the black vote from 9% in 2000 to 11% last year. They also helped Republicans win substantially higher margins in key states such as Ohio, Michigan and Florida.
One pastor at the White House meeting said Bush's pledge would force corporate executives to consider questions of race as they distribute millions of dollars in donations designed to boost companies' images.
"This is all about whether white corporations become rational corporate citizens when it comes to black Americans, who are lagging behind all social groups," said the Rev. Eugene Rivers, who heads a church and charity in Boston.
"I think we can all understand (corporations’) reluctance, just as we see within government a reluctance to fund a faith-based organization because you don't want money to go to preaching or proselytizing," said Jim Towey, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.
Towey noted that many faith-based groups had separate accounts — one for strictly religious activities and one for social services — so that "the corporate or foundation or government money can go to the social service itself" and not the religious component.
But, he added, "While we have removed barriers [on donations to faith-based groups] at the federal level, within corporate boardrooms and foundation boardrooms, there are still barriers in place."
The House of Representatives has approved a number of faith-based measures during the Bush administration, but none have survived in the Senate, where there are strong feelings about maintaining the constitutional separation of church and state and the potential for employment discrimination by faith-based groups.
House legislation has approved – and President Bush has endorsed – the acceptability of faith-based organizations being able to hire only people of their own faith. Many commentators and much of the Senate believe this constitutes employment discrimination.
The current emphasis on corporate giving is seen as an extension of the administration's efforts to increase government grants to religious social service agencies.
But securing corporate support may be problematic. Companies are reluctant to risk offending customers by being seen to be involved in religion. Corporate foundations tend to follow strict guidelines by giving only to established groups and benign causes such as education and the arts. However, numerous companies contribute to groups such as Habitat for Humanity and the Salvation Army, which have religious components but are considered credible charities.
Despite turmoil in the White House Office of Faith-Based Initiatives – one of its most senior officials resigned earlier this year claiming that the office had insufficient resources -- faith-based offices have been opened in ten agencies, including the Labor Department and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Grants made by these departments were credited with helping Bush make political inroads with black preachers in battleground states and increasing the president's share of the vote among African Americans in the 2004 election.
Attending the White House meeting was Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who briefed the ministers on her recent trip to Africa. In May, Rice hosted about two dozen black ministers in San Francisco for a discussion of ways to increase funding to black faith-based groups doing relief work in Africa.
That meeting was followed by criticism from several black ministers that Bush had not done enough to increase funding to fight HIV in Africa.
But in a letter later delivered to Bush, some of the same clerics wrote to "vigorously applaud" the administration's Africa policy, including White House efforts at the recent G-8 summit in Scotland that led to debt relief for African nations.
Meanwhile, a storm is brewing on the religious right against Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s endorsement of expanded research using embryonic stem cells.
Frist spoke by video to the first "Justice Sunday" evangelical rally in April, but was not invited to address next week’s "Justice Sunday II”. Instead, the invitation went to embattled House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican, who has become the center of a major controversy about illegal fund-raising practices and accepting favors from lobbyists.
Family Research Council president Tony Perkins said on the group's Web site that Frist's recently announced stem cell stance "reflects an unwise and unnecessary choice both for public policy and for respecting the dignity of human life."
Another conservative group that will participate in the rally, James Dobson’s “Focus on the Family”, is also upset about Frist's stem cell decision. A spokesman said, "Our views have not changed; Senator Frist's views have evidently changed."