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Should George W. Bush Enlist Religious Organizations to Help Fight the War on Poverty?

Aired May 21, 2001 - 19:30   ET


BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Tonight: Bush declares war on poverty, but does he have the right battle plan? Should he enlist religious organizations? Or could he help the poor more by scaling back a tax cut that critics say helps the rich?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press; on the right, Robert Novak. In the CROSSFIRE: Gary Bauer, president of American Values, and in New York, Reverend Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network.

PRESS: Good evening. Welcome to CROSSFIRE.

Guess who praised both Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton over the weekend? Would you believe? President George Bush. In a commencement address at the University of Notre Dame, Bush praised Johnson for launching the war on poverty, praised Clinton for signing welfare reform legislation, and then called his proposal for federal funding for church-based charities the "third wave" in the war on poverty.

But critics say Bush is blurring the separation between church and state. And Democrats ask: if Bush really wants to help the poor, why is he giving a tax cut to the rich? Support for so-called faith- based initiatives is now in front of Congress, and might even become an issue in the next presidential campaign. Where, who knows? Gary Bauer might decide to make a repeat performance, and where Reverend Al Sharpton says that he might just jump in for the first time.

Sitting in on the right again tonight: Kate O'Beirne of the "National Review" and CNN's "CAPITAL GANG" -- Kate.


PRESS: You are up first.

O'BEIRNE: Thank you, Reverend Sharpton, for joining us.

Reverend Sharpton, federal welfare spending is at an all-time high: $430 billion last year. And under George Bush's budget, it goes up by 6 percent a year. That doesn't really please me as a conservative. But isn't it clear that President Bush has no intention of cutting welfare spending? He just wants church groups to be able to have a small share of this huge and growing pot of money? What is wrong with that?

REV. AL SHARPTON, PRESIDENT, NATIONAL ACTION NETWORK: I think the fear is that Mr. Bush is trying to cover with rhetoric of faith- based poverty fighting a real crucial problem, his tax cut proposals, that would really expand options for the rich and in many ways cost those that are poor and those that are working class in this country.

So I think with all of this speech at Notre Dame, praising Lyndon Johnson, praising Bill Clinton, and then appealing to Americans' belief in faith-based institutions is to really cover us from looking at a very unfair tax cut proposal that would really limit the economic options that could help this country really help poor people.

O'BEIRNE: Reverend Sharpton, you are being pretty harsh on President Bush. Let me figure out if part of this is part of your 2004 theme against President Bush, or are you willing to find some common ground? Part of President Bush's tax cut proposal gives a big deduction to increase donations to charity. One independent estimate says that that provision that Bush proposes, will increase charitable giving by $14 billion a year. Surely, that Bush proposal you can agree with.

SHARPTON: It's not a question of agreement. We are talking about poverty. To have people increase their charity-giving, first, that would help those in a position to give. If we are talking about poor people, if we are talking about a war on poverty, you are talking about people that don't have the money to take advantage of increased tax cuts and charity giving or not.

Either we will have a war on poverty or either we are going to have little loopholes that help some people help charity. And charity is fine. But we must deal with the fact that there is an increasing problem of poverty of that has come back in this country, with the welfare reform bill now coming of age, there will be those that are now forced off the welfare rolls, some 38,000 in New York City alone.

Where are these people going? The answer to that isn't so that you can make more donations to charities. I don't think we can mix apples and oranges and come up with a salad.

PRESS: Gary Bauer, I want to ask you the central question I think cuts through this alleged identification with the war on poverty. If George Bush really wants to help the poor, why is giving a $1.3 trillion tax cut to the wealthiest people in this country?

GARY BAUER, PRESIDENT, AMERICAN VALUES: You need to take a cold shower. Your fixation on letting people that work in this country have more of their hard-earned money is really becoming unflattering at this point.

This is a modest tax cut spread over 10 years. To the extent it helps investment, to the extent it helps people create new jobs, it will help exactly the working-class people and the poor people that Reverend Sharpton is talking about.

Besides that, Bill, these are two separate proposals. One is an effort to give more of people's hard earned money back to them.

The second proposal is an effort to fund and subsidize some of groups that are most effective in helping the poor.

PRESS: Come on, Gary, that sounds like a Shell game. There's only so much money you have to decide where it goes. If you analyze this Bush tax cut, O.K.? -- which the "New York Times" did just last week -- the 400 Americans who make the most money in this country get an average $1 million dollar a year tax cut. 2 and a half years, that's $1 billion that we are giving to 400 Americans.

Will you tell me how that helps the poor? Will you tell me how long before that trickles down?

BAUER: You know, Bill, I would be happy to do a show any time as you know, on the tax cut. We have argued about this before. But tonight's show is about whether it's a good idea or a bad idea for George Bush to say to the American people, we need a third stage of fighting poverty and a third stage I, George Bush want to propose, is having governor partner with faith-based organizations to help those people that are poor and hurting in this country.

The fact of the matter is, the research shows those faith-based groups work better, are more effective, have a higher success rate, than any other group does. Why are you and Al Sharpton against helping the poor?

PRESS: Well, we'll get to that. But I disagree with that. Central issue of this show is whether George Bush is trying to fool the American people into thinking he is another Lyndon Johnson.

BAUER: What world do you live in?

PRESS: He's not going to get away with it.

BAUER: What American is looking at the tax bill and getting it mixed up with whether or not it's a good idea to help faith-based institutions?

PRESS: Every intelligent American watching.

BAUER: You and Al, I guess.

O'BEIRNE: Reverend Sharpton, although I tried, you are unwilling to give your potential presidential rival credit for encourage charitable giving that low income people would benefit from. How about -- tax code, but how about this proposal of George Bush's? Private corporations.

The top ten private corporations. Six of them restrict giving to religious groups. President Bush will try to encourage corporations to give more money to churches and ministries in Harlem then they do, at least as much, to museums and symphonies. Don't you agree with President Bush that those corporations ought to be helping low-income Americans more? SHARPTON: First of all, I have not said that was not good. I said it does not answer poverty. It is good to have an umbrella, but that doesn't stop the rain. What I am saying is, if we are talking about a war poverty, if we are going to lift the poverty level in Harlem, donating to some more charities in Harlem -- well, it is good -- it will not address the mass problem of raising up the mass poverty problem that we have in the Harlems in this country. So, I don't agree I didn't answer you. I didn't give you the answer you want.

O'BEIRNE: Reverend Sharpton, welfare rolls across the country, are down 60 percent, and still, welfare spending is at an all-time high. Isn't it true that for an awful lot of poor people, their problem isn't essentially economic?

Some people, for instance, who are poor, have addiction problems. Some faith-based groups have been remarkably successful in helping people with addiction problems. Shouldn't that poor person be free to go to a faith-based group for that kind of help?

SHARPTON: Well, the question becomes, do we put right of people's civil liberties and their right to choose their lifestyle at jeopardy, when we can service them the same way or even more effectively without having that particular problem. You cannot say to me, in the name of some of these faith-based groups, that have a good track record, that therefore, the government must make a commitment to the faith-based arena with all the questions unresolved about whether or not, in some cases, they infringe upon people's right to choose, or what religion they want to practice, whether these groups are proselytizing, and trying to convert people to their religion, in order to give them some kind of assistance.

BAUER: Al, you are a pastor; you are a reverend. Are you telling me you haven't seen in your own personal work as a pastor that dealing with people's heart and souls is absolutely necessary if you are going to get them out of some of these problems, whether it's drug addiction or hopelessness....

SHARPTON: Absolutely.

BAUER: Why are you so hostile to Republican president that wants to put a big emphasis on that?

SHARPTON: I'm a good enough minister to not have to use government money to force people to let me appeal to their heart and soul. And there is a difference between conversion and making people...

BAUER: There is absolutely nothing...


BAUER: There is absolutely nothing in the president's proposal that forces anybody to do anything. As you know, Reverend Sharpton, a lot of the most effective groups in Harlem and around the country happen to be faith-based groups. Christian groups, black churches, et cetera, that care about people, not only about their flesh and blood, but about their heart and soul...

SHARPTON: And there are many groups that are not faith-based that are good.

BAUER: People don't need a personal relationship with a government bureaucrat. They need a personal relationship with a loving God.

SHARPTON: What they need is a personal relationship with an economic policy that will uplift. And we don't need the president or the right-wing to decide that. Are you going to give faith-based money to those faiths you disagree with? Are you going to give it to the Nation of Islam?

BAUER: We're going to give it to anybody that can show that they effectively deliver services in a way that's consistent with the government.


PRESS: All right, OK.

BAUER: Al, let me remind you of one other thing. You had a president for eight years. What did he do on poverty?

PRESS: By the way, he did support this program, and I think he was as wrong as George Bush is. I want to jump in here, Gary, and get to another point about this, which, you know, you can't fool -- you can't fool all of the people all of the time. And George Bush couldn't even...

BAUER: I just have to fool you and Al.


PRESS: George Bush couldn't even fool all of the students...


PRESS: Bush couldn't even fool all the students at Notre Dame. One of them was quoted in this morning's "Washington Post." He's a theology major. He says that he and the people in his parish were really excited when they heard about this faith-based program. Then they started thinking about it. Michael Newhouse told "The Washington Post" this morning, he said, now we're having second thoughts.

Quote -- "It's great that people are talking about faith, but once funding comes, stipulations follow."

You know, Gary, that these churches are going to lose their independence, because they take a dollar and then come the strings.

BAUER: That is the biggest danger I think everybody recognizes, with this program. Any faith-based organization that took the money and them allowed a government bureaucrat to start regulating what they said in their religious message would be a faith-based institution not worthy of the name. There's got to be safeguards written in there. I believe the president is capable and desirous of doing that. I think John Dilulio at the White House is committed to doing that. It's something that both on the right and the left, we're going to have to be careful about.

PRESS: But you're just kidding yourself.

SHARPTON: The new wrinkle is that we should give all the money to faith-based initiatives, and then have faith that the president will write in the right guidelines. That's double faith. I don't know if we're got that much faith to go around.


BAUER: No, we -- apparently you don't. But we don't have to take it at faith. We can see it in the legislation. But clearly, Reverend Sharpton, it's something that will have to be addressed.


SHARPTON: Why don't the president say that we'll fight poverty by giving money to those groups that have a proven track record? Isn't he really trying to play on the moral suasion of country by calling it faith-based? Why don't he say those that have a proven track record? What he's really trying to do is make it look like those of us that are fighting for civil liberties and civil rights are anti-faith, rather than really questioning how he's trying to manipulate this to deal with a distraction from his...


BAUER: As Kate -- as everybody pointed out, there are no cuts in welfare programs in the Bush budget. You guys get 6 percent more in the budget on top of the faith-based...

SHARPTON: Who are "you guys"?

BAUER: And you should -- those of you that you were just describing.

SHARPTON: We're not the faith-based people. We're not getting anything.

PRESS: You have that right.

SHARPTON: You going to take care of you guys. Don't accuse us of this.

BAUER: Government programs fighting poverty are still going to give money.

PRESS: Reverends -- Reverends, both, it's time for some silent prayer...

BAUER: I'm not a reverend.


PRESS: ... all right, while we take a break. Gary Bauer, by the way, is going to hang around in our chat room right after the show. You can join him at

And when we come back, question: Before we give money to these faith-based organizations, shouldn't we know for sure that they really are going to work?


O'BEIRNE: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. I'm Kate O'Beirne of "National Review" and CNN's "CAPITAL GANG," sitting in on the right.

Does President Bush's faith-based initiative, which allows government to help religious groups who are helping the poor, have a prayer? Will this third phase of the war on poverty launch a political war, or will it inspire the lion to lie down with the lamb? You can decide as we welcome back this evening's guests.

In New York, Reverend Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network, and here in Washington, Gary Bauer, president of American Values -- Bill?

PRESS: Gary, you have asserted dogmatically several times already on this show that these faith-based action programs work -- maybe work better than government. You know Byron Johnson? Do you know who Byron Johnson is?

BAUER: I've heard the name, yes.

PRESS: Byron Johnson is at the University of Pennsylvania, now holds the job that John Dilulio, who is president -- the head of this program in the White House -- used to have at the University of Pennsylvania.

I'd just like to read to you something that he said the other day. This was just last month. Quote -- "From the left to the right, everyone assumes that faith-based programs work. We hear that and just sit back and laugh. In terms of empirical evidence that they work, it's pretty much nonexistent."

Gary, you have to have a lot of faith to even think these faith- based programs are going to make it.

BAUER: You have to be...


BAUER: You have to...

PRESS: Medicaid works. Social Security works.

BAUER: You have to be an ivory tower professor to not know that these things work, Bill. The reason this proposal was even put on the table to begin with is that for the last 10 years, everybody that has looked at these things has concluded that they work. That's why a group like Prison Fellowship, of Chuck Colson's, gets incredibly high marks in bringing prisoners out of jail and preventing them from being recidivist and going back into prison, over a much longer period of time than any government-run program does.

PRESS: Gary, this is the guy that invented the program, that brought it to the White House. He says there's no evidence that it works. But you talk -- you sort of ducked the question that Reverend Sharpton asked you, talking about programs that work.

In 1994, there was a program that worked, a faith-based organization providing security of public housing here in D.C. and in Baltimore. Happened to be the Nation of Islam got money from HUD. Republicans in Congress passed a bill to take that money away. Under this program, would you support the Nation of Islam getting federal funds? And why are the Republicans against it?

BAUER: Let me explain how the program works, Bill.

PRESS: But yes or no? Nation of Islam on the list or not?

BAUER: I'm not going to answer yes or no, because it requires a couple of sentences, Bill. Have patience. Look, under the program...

SHARPTON: He wants to have faith, patience, what else?

BAUER: There'll be money put up to serve people, for example, that are hungry. If you apply for a grant and you can show you're feeding the hungry, you've got a chance to get a grant under the program. If the Nation of Islam is providing a service effectively, then they can compete for money like anybody else, and the program shouldn't distinguish between it's a faith that I like or that you like. The only criteria is: Do they deliver the services? I don't know why this is so hard.

PRESS: So this is a long yes.

BAUER: It indeed is.

SHARPTON: Then why did the Republicans fight that before? Would you say then the Republicans were wrong? And, Kate, are we going to see the "National Review" do an editorial reprimanding those Republicans that rose up against that faith-based initiative in Washington?

O'BEIRNE: Reverend Sharpton, we reprimand Republicans all the time. Let me ask you something...

SHARPTON: That didn't answer my direct question.

O'BEIRNE: If President Bush's faith-based initiative is an attempt to sort of take off church groups and snooker the poor, why is its chief sponsor in the Senate, Senator Joe Lieberman. Is he part of this plot to do in the poor?

SHARPTON: Well, I haven't agreed with Lieberman on everything. A better question is why isn't some of president's faith-based backers like Jerry Falwell and others not leading the charge supporting this? I think it's much better to ask why members of the cloth, leaders of the Christian right have joined the right Christians and said we are opposed to this.

O'BEIRNE: Let me ask you something about some people of the cloth: scores of black ministers have endorsed this plan.

SHARPTON: And hundreds have opposed it.

O'BEIRNE: They are putting partisan differences aside in the interest of helping the poor, they are willing to reach out to President Bush who is clearly reaching out to them. Now, isn't that the right thing to do, indeed, maybe the Christian thing to do, to try to with a political foe in order to help the poor.

SHARPTON: The Christian thing to do is to feed the hungry and the cloth the naked, and not say that they have to be fed or clothed by those that you deemed to be faith-based, rather those that are deemed to capable of doing it and committed to do it. And you can give me scores of ministers for it, I give you scores against it. The Christian thing to do is get the food to the poor, and if I have to go into a certain church, a certain denomination and hear certain preaching and proselytizing in order to eat, that is a violation of my dignity just to cover my stomach.

PRESS: All right, gentlemen, we are just about out of time. Before we get there, Reverend Sharpton, I want to come and ask you a question: reported today that you are saying you're considering running for president in year 2004. Are you going to run or not -- have you made a decision?

SHARPTON: Well, we're going to see. I have not made a decision. I think that given the voter right's violations of last year, and in my opinion, the lack of the Democratic party and Republican party fighting that, clearly we need a new strategy and the progressive communities for 2004, and I think a candidacy is in order. I said I would be available, I'd support others. So, we will see. But I clearly do not think we can do replay of 2000 where we...

BAUER: Al...

O'BEIRNE: Any advice, Gary?


BAUER: Al, I've got great news for you: All my Republican friends I talked to today can't wait for you to run in the Democratic primary, so we wish you well.

SHARPTON: Tell them to keep the faith.



O'BEIRNE: Oh, finally he's in favor of faith. Finally.

PRESS: We're all in favor of faith just not without government funding. Reverend Sharpton, thank you so much for joining us again tonight. Gary Bauer, always good to have you back. Keep the faith.

BAUER: You're welcome, Bill, great to be here.

PRESS: And Kate O'Beirne and I will be back some -- with final comments about faith-based institutions and other stuff coming up.


PRESS: OK, you're turn to throw your questions at Gary Bauer in our chatroom,, right after the show.

Kate, you know what bothers me about this is the sheer audacity of it. I mean, I checked today again that LBJ's war on a poverty, right? You had Medicare, you had Medicaid, you had K-12, you had higher education, you had (UNINTELLIGIBLE), you had the Job Corps, you had Head Start. I mean, couldn't they come up with different name at the White House instead of insulting Lyndon Johnson?

O'BEIRNE: And Bill, I'm sorry to say, they are all going strong. Since 1964, governments at all levels have spent $8 trillion on welfare. As Ronald Reagan used to say, "We launched a war on poverty and poverty won."

PRESS: Well, they fixed welfare. I mean, I support, sort of, the welfare reform, but this is something that you conservatives ought to be against.

O'BEIRNE: Bill...

PRESS: This faith based is more government money, it's another government bureaucracy, and it's churches -- government interfering with churches, Kate. You don't want that.

O'BEIRNE: Bill, it's clear now that child poverty is largely a function of single parents. The next phase of welfare reform should encourage marriage, and there I think church groups might be able to help.

PRESS: Well, I'm not against marriage, but I'm...

O'BEIRNE: There you go, we agree.

PRESS: But I am against putting this public money into churches and taking away the church's independence.

O'BEIRNE: Oh no, in HUD we trust.

PRESS: From the left, OK, I'm Bill Press -- no faith in that. Good night for CROSSFIRE.

O'BEIRNE: And from the right, I'm Kate O'Beirne. Join us again tomorrow night for another edition of CROSSFIRE. TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT


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