WASHINGTON — A political storm has gathered over the new White House faith-based office, as President Bush is tested by Christian conservative leaders who fervently supported his candidacy but now are voicing loud objections to his outreach to other religious groups.
"This is turning into the worst trip of the administration's first 50 days. They seem to have hit a big pothole," said Gary Bauer, a religious conservative who ran against Bush in the Republican primaries.
"I think Bush's original idea — that faith-based groups would receive direct government grants — is in the process of being destroyed," Bauer said. "It's a classic example of the difference between campaigning on an issue and governing."
Groups on the right and left that are tracking Bush's faith-based initiative were abuzz about comments The Washington Post attributed to Don Eberly, the deputy director of the faith-based office, in Monday's editions. Eberly was quoted as saying the office was revising the administration's policy of aiding social ministries and was "postponing" delivery of a legislative package to Capitol Hill.
Asked by reporters if he was retreating from his initiative, Bush said, "Not at all."
"There's a lot of bipartisan support on the Hill," said Bush, who was traveling in Florida. "I'm proud of our faith-based initiative. We're moving forward. It's the right thing to do."
White House officials rejected requests for interviews with Eberly and John DiIulio Jr., the director of the faith-based office. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer said Eberly did not believe that the Post article was an "accurate reflection" of his remarks, and Fleischer called the story "puzzling."
But Marvin Olasky, the University of Texas professor who helped Bush craft his campaign message of compassionate conservatism, said the story was a signal that the concerns he and other conservatives have about the direction of the office under DiIulio — a Philadelphia criminologist whose academic focus has been on the social work of blackchurches — were going to be addressed.
"They realized their position was crumbling and it was time to make a change. If they follow through, I welcome this and applaud it," said Olasky, who has become a critic of the faith-based intiative as it has appeared to evolve into a plan that would make evangelical ministries emphasizing conversion to Christianity ineligible for direct grants.
The essence of Bush's proposal, made with much fanfare in his second week in office, is that his administration wants to remove obstacles that prevent community-based charities and religious ministries from obtaining federal grants to deliver social services to the needy.
In addition to setting up the White House office and satellite centers in several federal agencies, Bush initially said he would work to change laws so direct grants could be made to groups he has called "the armies of compassion."
The initiative came under quick attack from some civil libertarians who said it violated the constitutional separation of church and state. But the administration was blindsided by the dissents from Christian Right leaders Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, who said they could not endorse a plan that allowed federal money to support the prison ministries or housing programs of groups like the Hare Krishnas, the Church of Scientology, or Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church.
"No matter that some may use brainwashing techniques, or that the founder of one claims to be the messiah and another that he was Buddha reincarnated. Under the proposed faith-based initiative, all must receive taxpayer funds if they provide 'effective' service to the poor," Robertson wrote in a commentary published in The Wall Street Journal Monday. "In my mind, this creates an intolerable situation."
Robertson said a better way to fund social ministries is by encouraging private donations to groups that pass a federal audit and are posted in a government registry. Olasky says the government should not provide direct grants but instead make vouchers available to needy people who then can pick their own sectarian or secular social-service provider.
Bush received more than 80 percent of the vote of evangelical Christians in November and was warmly embraced by their church leaders for, among other things, his profession of faith in Jesus and pledge that as president he would give religious groups a more active role in meeting social needs.