When Jim Towey talks about “armies of compassion” he’s speaking about small, faith-based groups that no one’s probably ever heard of, in places most people have never been, helping prisoners just out of jail, children without parents, or women who are drug addicts.
“This is the great work of America and those groups should be embraced and not blocked,” he said with a smile in his voice during an exclusive interview with The NonProfit Times.
Traveling the nation, watching these groups and seeing “a beautiful tapestry of faith,” was the best part of his job as assistant to President George W. Bush and director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Effective July 1, Towey will become president of Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., near Pittsburgh.
It seems a logical next step for President Bush’s point man on faith to lead a 1,600-student school with the largest Christian monastery in the world.
A deeply religious man, Towey is married with five children. He worked with Mother Teresa’s ministry for more than a decade before joining the White House. The broadest criticism of the faith-based office since its inception has been that public money should not be going to religious organizations, in effect obliterating the line between church and state.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State urged the closing of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives upon the announcement in April of Towey’s departure.
“Jim Towey has waged an unrelenting war against church-state separation,” the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, said in a statement. Americans United is a Washington, D.C.-based religious liberty watchdog group, founded in 1947, that aims to educate Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.
But Towey, a self-described “pro-life Democrat,” countered that “the wall between church and state is still standing,” while at the same time the poor have benefited from effective programs offered by faith-based groups.
Hurricane Katrina is held up as an example of the need for a faith-based and community initiative. “The poor were streaming out of New Orleans, not because they just simply needed social services. They wanted a place that would welcome them and love them. And so often the advocates — so-called advocates — of the poor have denied them access to programs like that because the roots of many of these social problems that Americans face today are spiritual in nature,” Towey said. “A rabbi or preacher can connect with the poor and have their trust like no government or grassroots group can”, said the perpetually optimistic Towey. “The death rattle of the secular extremists has given way to a common-sense, sensible approach to helping our poor. And Katrina magnified the importance of a faith-based community initiative.”
Towey maintains that the office has only created a “level playing field” for religious organizations that provide social services, but previously had been shut out of federal funding simply because they were affiliated with a religious group or church.
Federal funds do not benefit any organization, but those who need the services provided, whether it’s the homeless or addicted. “My job is to make sure no government money is funding proselytizing or inherently religious activities,” he said. “And I think we’ve done a very good job on that front. A handful of grants have been challenged in five years. … Whether an individual, after-hours of a job training program, goes into a 12-step program that’s privately funded — that’s not for our office to determine whether that’s good or bad. But I think America benefits every time an addict recovers.”
Towey said that he doesn’t want to force religion on anyone but if a program works and is successful, it should not be disregarded for the sole reason that it’s run by people of faith. “We shouldn’t allow secular extremists who are so freaked out about religion to block them from going into that program if it could transform their life. And I think that’s why Katrina showed that, pretty dramatically so.”
Such programs can be run in “an effective way, and constitutionally, without asking the group to sacrifice their vitality, which might be that spiritual imperative,” he said. Lynn of Americans United also was critical of the faith-based initiative for being “about funneling public funds to favored political constituencies, not helping the poor. In the process, the White House has trampled the First Amendment principle of church-state separation and jeopardized important civil rights laws.”
Calling the criticism “laughable on its face,” Towey describes Headstart as the single biggest competitive grant program, and where less than a nickel of every dollar goes to religious charities. “Almost all the money is going to Democrat strongholds and organizations that are as hostile to a Republican administration as can be. If that’s a political patronage program, it’s a Democratic political patronage and Congress made it that way by making it almost impossible to compete for grants.
“Those who want to look at a handful of grants and argue that there’s some kind of political favoritism for Republican organizations, they literally have to blind themselves to the reality that 89 cents of the discretionary grant dollars are going to secular organizations that are predominantly Democratic,” said Towey. “If they want to put an end to political patronage and federally-funded social service programs, sign me up.”
Transparency and oversight In many cases, religious groups create a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization to disburse the federal money, but also to help keep a close eye on it.
“A lot of the federal grants require, for a certain amount of money, an annual audit, so it’s self-selecting which nonprofits — secular or sacred — will be audited agencies,” Towey said. “We provide technical assistance to set up 501(c)(3) organizations, even if they had their church exemption and most of the players do that. There aren’t too many groups that receive government funds that don’t set up 501(c)(3)s, because it’s a good practice. We recommend it.”
The office has also “touted the importance of transparency, and so, organizations that decide they want to play ball with the federal government certainly don’t want to end up in the penalty box,” said Towey, who in 1996 founded Aging With Dignity, a nonprofit advocacy group for aging and care-giving.
Because of the oversight and red tape involved, some groups decline to seek federal funds. “We find that over time some groups that aren’t willing to have that accountability and oversight don’t go after those grants. And over time there just hasn’t been the torrent of concern that unqualified groups were getting money or wasting money,” Towey said. “We’re five years-plus into the initiative and it just hasn’t materialized.”
The initiative also has drawn attention to the nonprofit sector, and America’s need for it, he said. Towey credits the nonprofit community with maturing and becoming more sophisticated, allowing small organizations to grow. “The process to get a 501(c)(3) is easier, the software that you can buy now to help you allocate funds and track money has made it within the reach of small church-based, synagogue-based charities.” Towey cited as an example, a Dallas church as a typical “Mom-and-Pop” operation that has matured into a $3-million charity with a $1.3 million budget for its homeless shelter.
“The reality is a lot of the concerns that were expressed were framed in the 1970s and they’ve been overtaken by technology and the development of these small nonprofits,” he said.
“I think that there’s something very sanctifying about being with the poor and with the little,” said Towey, who served as director of health and rehabilitative services in the administration of the late Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles. “The benefits of my job, to go out there and see what I’ve seen, to meet America’s religious leaders…are just exciting to me. This is something America can teach the world, about how diverse faiths live together.”
Two of the challenges Towey faced when he took over the office in 2002 were forming realistic expectations after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and the “very partisan, very polarized” initial debate in the U.S. Senate regarding the initiative.
Following the terrorist attacks, “budgets changed, priorities shifted to where they needed to be,” he said. “So, that meant for all domestic initiatives an adjustment in expectations.” With regard to debate on The Hill, “the challenge was, in effect, to relaunch the initiative without making Congress the grade-giver and the ultimate determiner.”
Who’s next? Towey, who succeeded John DiIulio Jr., described his as yet unselected successor as someone who must be “a true believer in the initiative, because you speak about it, and you advance it 24/7.”
In addition to being a good listener, the person must be “familiar with the landscape and has to present good judgment because there’s 2 1/2 years left in this term so you have to prioritize well.”
The challenge his successor will face will be taking progress to the next level. “There’s momentum now and we want to maintain that,” Towey said, “and it will be vital for the next person to shepherd “the targeted initiatives through the budget and appropriations process.”
Congress has appropriated $742 million for the Compassion Capital Fund, Access to Recovery drug treatment program, Prisoner Re-entry Initiative and Mentoring Children of Prisoners.
The faith-based office also will continue to face legal challenges. “We’re always going to be sued by adversaries,” he said. “There’s always going to be a tension on these church-state issues, and there should be. The reality is our founding fathers intended there to be a tension with the free exercise clause, establishment clause. Anyone sitting in this chair will have to walk that tightrope, but it’s worth walking. The poor are worth the effort,” Towey said.
Regardless of who succeeds him, or whoever next takes over the White House, Towey expects the initiative to continue and leave a lasting legacy now that it’s been firmly established.
Does he have any words for the person who eventually will take over his desk? “Pray and work. And know that this initiative is going to leave a lasting legacy in the way social services are provided. The victory’s already been won.” NPT