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Crossfire

Is the President the Only One With Faith in His Faith-Based Program?

Aired March 14, 2001 - 7:30 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Americans want to see the government welcome faith-based programs into the compassionate delivery of help. So we're going to have a good package, and I'll be signing a good bill.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Tonight: Is the president the only one with faith in his faith-based program? With criticism from conservatives and delayed action in Congress, will it ever pass? Or should it?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE.

On the left, Bill Press. On the right, Robert Novak.

In the CROSSFIRE: Reverend Louis Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition and in New York; Reverend Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network.

PRESS: Good evening. Welcome to CROSSFIRE. You got to have faith. George Bush does, in his faith-based programs. But does anybody else? The president traveled to Plainsfield, New Jersey today, visiting an Episcopal Church after-school program which he says might qualify for federal funds.

But, back here in the capital, doubts about his program are building. And not from the usual suspects. Most vocal opposition has come, in fact, not from the left, but from the right. Religious conservatives like Pat Robertson, who fear that taking federal dollars in, will require throwing Jesus out. And Congress is listening. For now, the president's proposal's been put on ice where, maybe, only prayer can save it.

So, should federal dollars be used to support religious charities? Will churches rise up and say, thanks, but no thanks? Tucker Carlson.

TUCKER CARLSON, CO-HOST: Reverend Al Sharpton. First off, congratulations on finding a federal program you appear to be against, but tell me this -- the parts of New York you are familiar with, the poor parts, are, virtually, kept afloat by religious organizations which feed and clothe and educate poor families. And here comes President Bush saying, this is a good thing, so good we want to help it -- we want to give it government money, thereby helping your community. How could you possibly be against this?

REV. AL SHARPTON, PRESIDENT, NATIONAL ACTION NETWORK: Well, first of all, Governor Bush is saying, one, I'm not going to tell you what the budget will be to help poor people in my area; I want you to give me a tax cut and I want you to have faith in a faith-based plan against no real budget. So, is he really trying to use a religious cloak to really cut budgets on social service, then pay off some of his friends in the Christian right and then limit people's right to choose on what they want -- live their lives, guide their lives by, in order to get some services.

So, I think clearly, when all the nebulous policy and nebulous budget setting, we would be foolish to think that this is gift; this in fact may be a political trick.

CARLSON: It's nice to hear you have become a fiscal conservative, Reverend Sharpton, but let's talk specifically about your community, Harlem, which as I said, is helped in immeasurable and innumerable ways by churches and Bush wants to give those churches money. You are a minister, again, how could you possibly be against that idea, helping Harlem...?

SHARPTON: First of all, what is Bush's budget for my community? Secondly, these churches are operating very effectively without having to silence their opposition to some of Bush's plans. And thirdly, how do we know Bush will not overall cut the budget for communities like mine -- give a few dollars to faith-based friends and use that to justify undercutting the services and the budget for those services that we need.

We are asking Bush -- Bush is asking to us to give him tax cuts and faith based in the blind. There is no established federal budget; so, what are we talking about here?

PRESS: OK, Reverend Sheldon -- I know gluttony is one of 7 capital sins, Reverend, but it seems to me that the gluttony of a lot of preachers like you is blinding you to the danger of taking these federal dollars. Let me -- I will tell you one that is not blind, and that's the Reverend Pat Robertson. I think he sees right through this scam, and let's listen to him:

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PAT ROBERTSON, FOUNDER, CHRISTIAN COALITION: All of sudden, some bureaucrat says ,we will give you tons of money, but you can't talk about your faith, you can't teach them the Torah, you can't talk about Jesus, what have you. At that point they have essentially killed the essence of that organization.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

PRESS: Pat Robertson is not wrong, is he Reverend? REV. LOU SHELDON, CHAIRMAN, TRADITIONAL VALUES COALITION: Yes. I would disagree with my very good and, I would say, close friend of many years at this point. I do not believe that you are going to have a curtailment of the principles of the faith-based organizations. I think what is really at stake here, is that some valid questions have been raised, not really road blocks or objections.

I think what has to happen, is that you have to see that people want a tax credit, not just a tax deduction. If I make $100,000 and are you running a faith-based organization and I owe the government say, $100,000 in taxes and I am allowed to make that a tax credit. That means, the money doesn't go to Washington and then come to you. It goes directly from my checking account, and goes then to your faith-based ministry.

Now, you have to substantiate that you are valid, that you have results, that you are doing humanitarian good, and that's OK, because that has no effect upon the principles of your faith-based.

PRESS: Revered Sheldon, let's be careful here what we were talking about. There is an aspect up in Congress -- legislation in Congress -- to increase tax incentives for supporting private charities. That's not what we are talking about tonight.

We are talking about George Bush's program tonight, which is to give federal dollars in grants to religious organizations that are doing social services. You say you don't believe there's going to be any strings attached. There already are, Reverend.

Let me tell you about a soup kitchen down in Memphis. It's a soup kitchen; they're getting surplus food from the Department of Agriculture to serve meals to the hungry. And this religious organization gave a sermon after lunch and the Department of Agriculture said, you stop the sermon or we take back the soup.

SHELDON: They violated their First Amendment...

PRESS: No they didn't.

SHELDON: They did, too. Here's what they did wrong: just because you are religious, they say, you cannot effectively deliver a product called humanitarian good.

Now, why should religion have to sit in the back of the bus and be treated this terrible way we treated blacks years ago and segregate them out? I say, that is unconstitutional and I think we need to take a sledge hammer and smash that wall of separation that says, what the Department of Agriculture said, concerning that. Because I can show in Pomona, California, where the very opposite happened.

PRESS: And, so now, Pat Robertson is wrong and Thomas Jefferson is wrong, too?

SHELDON: Thomas Jefferson; he didn't believe in the separate of church and state.

PRESS: What? What?

SHELDON: Let me prove to you what I said. Let me say it to you. Because you probably haven't heard this yet, and that was this: Thomas Jefferson supported for all his years he was president to let the Congress conduct a Sunday morning worship service on the floor of the House of Representatives; not only did he, Thomas Jefferson, go, but Thomas Jefferson contributed at that Sunday morning service, held on the floor of the Congress by the United States Congress.

PRESS: Does...

(CROSSTALK)

PRESS: Does not prove anything.

SHELDON: He allowed the State Department...

CARLSON: Let me try to get an answer to my original question here from the Reverend Al Sharpton.

Mr. Sharpton, you apparently see some sort of hidden agenda here, on the part of the Bush administration. But a lot of other black preachers see a pretty straightforward transfer of power and money from Washington to the grassroots.

I just want to cite one of them, that's the Reverend Walter Fauntroy, who is a Baptist minister; I'm certain a friend of yours, who's a D.C. delegate for 20 years, and not a fan of Bush; here's what he says:

"I was not about to walk away from an election in 2000 I though we won, and say to the president, dispense the money wisely; it's all yours. Not when we have people and institutions at risk and churches that can get the job done."

So, Walter Fauntroy is saying, look, I don't support you, but I understand that federal money is federal money. I can use it to help and I will accept it from you. Why in the world wouldn't you take that attitude?

SHARPTON: Because there is no evidence that Mr. Bush will give that money in a fair way. There's no evidence that he not going use that to cover budget cuts and there's no way evidence that people like Reverend Fauntroy and others, who raise very critical and necessary issues against policies like Mr. Bush will not have to get those grants with their silence.

You just heard Reverend Sheldon -- with all my respect for him -- try to act like telling people not use dollars to try to proselytize, is like putting blacks on the back of bus. We had to go in the back of the bus, Reverend Sheldon, no matter what our religion is! And it's insulting for you to compare segregation, no matter if we were Muslim or Christian or Jewish, with whether or not somebody can preach to people that it's coming because they are hungry. There is no comparison.

(CROSSTALK)

SHELDON: Reverend Sharpton, I say that there is no evidence to prove that President Bush is going to do the very thing that you say. You say, there is no evidence to prove that he's going to deliver it; I say, there is no evidence to prove he will not deliver it. And I think that's a fair thing. Remember, we haven't had the 100 days yet. It's not even over.

SHARPTON: First of all, whether it's 100 days or 1,000 days, we are talking about the dispensing of dollars...

(CROSSTALK)

SHELDON: What is the evidence that you have he won't produce?

SHARPTON: You want me to start? One, let's talk about, what is the budget that this will come out of? Out of what are we going to distribute this? What is the basis of these...

SHELDON: Let me answer the question!

(CROSSTALK)

PRESS: One at a time, Reverend.

SHARPTON: I'm trying to answer. I'm trying to answer. We're both at the front of bus now, Reverend. What is the basis that we're going to choose these faiths? Are we dealing with faith-based that are in the Christian right that are supportive of him or are we going to deal those that clearly have a track record in their communities of providing services, and will still have the freedom to operate politically and in a way that might be critical of the administration..

SHELDON: All right, let me answer you real quickly before the time runs out. One, everybody will apply according to their ability to produce a service. I can assure you...

SHARPTON: And that will be assessed by the Bush administration.

(CROSSTALK)

SHELDON: I assure you, because I think you have a prejudice coming into that because you didn't even call him President Bush, you called him Governor Bush. I'm going to call him President Bush. I believe he's going to be sincere.

(CROSSTALK)

SHARPTON: Because I'm a preacher, I tell the truth. He didn't win the presidential election. He won...

SHELDON: Oh, yes, he did. The press in Florida proved that. You know that's true.

CARLSON: Hold on for a second. Now Al Sharpton, let me just ask you really quick, you raised and Lou Sheldon raised this notion that people of faith are being discriminated against here. If the Flat Earth Society runs a soup kitchen, it can take federal funds, but if your church, presumably you have a Baptist church, runs a soup kitchen, you're saying it ought to be able to simply because the word God is used. If that's not discriminatory, what is discriminatory?

SHARPTON: What I'm saying is that if a man is hungry and he has to accept being preached to, being proselytized to in order to get soup, one it is not only illegal, it is immoral...

SHELDON: No, it's not.

SHARPTON: ... to be able to use people, to use the hunger and needs of services to try and ram whatever you believe down their throat is not only unconstitutional, it is ungodly.

SHELDON: No, they have an alternative and if there is alternative...

SHARPTON: What is the alternative?

SHELDON: Let me finish, please. If they have alternative offered to them, it is absolutely unconstitutional to say that that faith-based group cannot present the message of faith.

SHARPTON: If I am in Harlem and I'm hungry and my option is to eat at my church and be preached to or don't eat at all because Mr. Bush is giving faith-based...

(CROSSTALK)

SHELDON: You're an extremist. You're taking an extreme position. That's ludicrous.

SHARPTON: I'm talking about the Bush plan. I'm talking about the Bush plan.

CARLSON: OK, there is more. The Reverend Sharpton and the Reverend Sheldon will be in our chat room right after the show. You can join them by logging on to cnn.com/crossfire.

SHELDON: Is the show over?

CARLSON: And all of us will be right back in a moment on CROSSFIRE.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CARLSON: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. Is government money like a soul-destroying addictive drug? That's what some critics are saying about the president's plan to fund faith-based charities. It's a drug, all right, counters the Bush administration, a potentially life- saving medication for people who receive social services from religious groups.

State funding church: The debate gets hotter. We'll stoke the fire tonight, with the Reverend Lou Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, and from New York, the Reverend Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network -- Bill.

PRESS: Reverend Sheldon, another concern about this program is who qualifies and who decides. Another person, I'm sure that's a friend of your, the Reverend Jerry Falwell has expressed some concerns about the -- I find myself tonight on the side of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, for some reason.

And Jerry Falwell recently said this, quote: "It also concerns me that once the pork barrel is filled, suddenly the Church of Scientology, the Jehovah's Witnesses, the various and many denominations and religious groups, I don't see how any can be turned down because of their radical and unpopular views."

So, I want to ask you specifically, will the so-called Church of Scientology qualify for funds under the Bush plan and who decides?

SHELDON: Well, it isn't that the church qualifies or if any other group that is considered not Protestant, mainline, evangelical, Catholic, whatever, it's that do they have a service that is a proven service where they can show positive results for that humanitarian service and assistance that they're offering.

I think that's the qualification. It isn't because your theological view, whatever it may be on the spectrum, that isn't the essence. The essence is do you produce what you say you set out to produce. And if that's the case, then I'm sure there's going to be a process put in place where people will come and be examined and seen.

PRESS: OK, let me ask you another specific: Back in 1994 a faith-based organization got the job of providing security and public housing. It was the Nation of Islam, led by Louis Farrakhan. Republican in Congress shot it down. They said it was outrageous that federal dollars should go to the Reverend Louis Farrakhan.

Now, I ask you, the Nation of Islam, under Bush's program, will the Nation of Islam qualify for federal funds and who decides.

SHELDON: Well, that would be a lot different.

PRESS: Why?

SHELDON: Here's why. What humanitarian service are you producing in comparison to what a state or city entity can do. Security, police...

PRESS: Housing security, public housing...

SHELDON: I think that that would be totally different. If you're talking about feeding the hungry...

PRESS: See, you're discriminating. See, you're discriminating.

SHELDON: No, no, no, no, no. No, police force and law enforcement has always -- as a matter of fact, law enforcement is part of our constitution.

PRESS: Reverend Sharpton.

(CROSSTALK)

SHARPTON: Wait a minute. First of all, this was not law enforcement. This was security of public housing, and this is again what I'm saying. This is not faith-based. This is faith based on Bush. If you were with Bush and you're part of what he considers right, you can get this.

How can you say security of public housing, any public housing in this country has security, that you would not have a group qualify for that. But you're going to go over and limit something else. This what I'm saying. It is transparent here that they're not talking about faith-based, they're talking about Bush-based and they're talking about having us Bush-whacked.

CARLSON: Wait a second.

SHELDON: Can I answer that?

PRESS: Go ahead.

SHELDON: Because I think that Al, you've gone off the deep end again.

SHARPTON: You just said that a group cannot do security in the public housing.

(CROSSTALK)

SHELDON: You're prejudice against George Bush hangs out of every word and syllable that you say. What you've got to do is back off and kind of forget for a moment, you know, and come into reality. Many Democrats are in denial that President Bush is the president, like it or not like it. No, this isn't Bush. This would be a very fair deal. And I think the answer here is very clear, that the church-state relationship has been, for many years, misunderstood. It has been a myth and it has been a lie. And what we have do is learn how, as religious organizations who have served the public, who have done good, come forth with that good, and say we have humanitarian good we want to do in the community. And when we do it...

(CROSSTALK)

SHARPTON: But Reverend, we cannot have it both ways.

You cannot say -- you cannot say that if someone is providing security in public housing when there's high crime, where grandmothers are being robbed, where mothers' pocketbooks are being snatched, that that's not a humanitarian thing to do to secure them.

The fact that you don't see that as humanitarian...

SHELDON: Are you saying the... (CROSSTALK)

SHARPTON: ... because you disagree, because you disagree with the group shows the political use that this faith-based initiative is going to have. Because who defines what is humanitarian? Securing people in the Albany projects in Brooklyn is very humanitarian to me, but it doesn't qualify because you don't agree with that faith-based.

And I'm not prejudging Bush: I'm after-judging Bush, after what I saw he proposed and after what he has done. I'm not doing that in advance. I'm doing that now.

CARLSON: OK. Well, let me ask you what another president did. Now, if part of this debate sounds familiar, it ought to, because, of course, President Clinton had ideas very similar to those that President Bush is now espousing. He signed something called the New Markets Initiative, which allows drug addicts to take federal vouchers to private religious drug treatment centers.

I can't imagine that you complained about that at the time...

SHARPTON: Well, first of all...

CARLSON: ... and so it seems to me it's clear this is purely a political...

SHARPTON: No. Absolutely not. I -- first of all, I never applied for it, never agreed with it, questioned those churches that would allow Mr. Clinton to neutralize them. But there is a big difference, Tucker, between me having a voucher that I can use somewhere, and in designing a federal program named and identified to target the faith community, because there you are not talking about options. You're saying this is the vehicle that you will get federal services provided -- a big difference.

CARLSON: Well, Al, let's talk about the faith community that is being, as you put it, "targeted" here. A study was done a couple of years of ago that asked the question, "Would your church apply for federal aid of any kind?"

And it turns out that only 28 percent of self-identified conservative churches and religious organizations would. Fifty-one percent of religious churches were willing to apply for federal aid. It's obvious that the bulk of this would go to small, poor, probably liberal congregations. It's not a right-wing conspiracy here.

SHARPTON: Obvious based on a poll? That's a poll. That is not the public policy given by this administration. You shouldn't read to me public opinion. You should read to me how Mr. Bush and those in charge are going to distribute it.

And I would argue that they're going to distribute it...

SHELDON: I'll tell you how they're going to distribute it, Al.

SHARPTON: ... they're going to distribute it like Reverend Sheldon is saying.

SHELDON: Let me tell you (UNINTELLIGIBLE) exactly how they're going to do it.

SHARPTON: "If we agree with your faith, you can come forth. If I don't think...

SHELDON: All right. Let me tell you: They're going to come forth very clearly to work with...

SHARPTON: ... what you're doing is humanitarian (UNINTELLIGIBLE), you're off the list.

(CROSSTALK)

PRESS: All right, real quickly, last word. Make it quick, please.

SHELDON: They're going to come forward with organizations like the one that's in Pomona, California, who helps people who have been in prison to come out, not to become second-time offenders. They pray with them, they read the Bible to them...

SHARPTON: If you think it's credible...

SHELDON: ... they do all sorts of wonderful things...

SHARPTON: ... if you think it's faith, then they can apply.

SHELDON: And that becomes an absolute power.

SHARPTON: And we are not going back to that kind of America.

SHELDON: ... an absolute power.

PRESS: All right. Reverend.

CARLSON: Reverends.

PRESS: Reverend, Reverend, it's time for silence in the chapel.

SHARPTON: The holy wars must continue.

PRESS: The holy war is over. Thank you, Reverend Sheldon. Thank you, Reverend Sharpton, for tonight. And the Reverend Tucker Carlson and I will be back with a final prayer we call our closing comments. Stay tuned.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CARLSON: The CROSSFIRE doesn't end here tonight, thank heaven. Reverend Al Sharpton and Reverend Lou Sheldon will be in our chatroom right after the show at cnn.com/crossfire.

Bill, I have seen Al Sharpton talk about discrimination more times than I can remember. It's a word that just comes right to his lips almost instinctively, and yet, there's clearly discrimination going on in the way the laws currently are. Any wacko secular group can take federal money to provide services. Use the word "God," no way.

PRESS: You're looking at it the wrong way. The problem here is not the government giving to churches. It's churches taking this money. If I were a preacher, I would say, "Get your cotton pickin' money out of my church" -- because you know there's not been one federal dollar in the history of the U.S. government that didn't go without strings attached.

CARLSON: I don't understand. "Your money out of my church" -- you think the money's just going to sort of going to be, blow in with a snow blower. I mean, you don't have to take the money if you don't want to. It's up to the preachers.

PRESS: No, unfortunately it's going to be the other way around. There's going to be greedy preachers who forget Jesus...

CARLSON: Greedy preachers?

PRESS: ... and go after the dollars, and they're going to ruin their churches.

CARLSON: I have more faith in people of faith.

PRESS: Pat Robertson is right. I have no faith in this program.

CARLSON: Apparently not.

PRESS: From the left, I'm Bill Press. Good night for CROSSFIRE. "SPIN ROOM" coming up with me and Tucker at 10:30.

CARLSON: Oh, yes. And I'm Tucker Carlson from the right. Good night from CROSSFIRE.

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