Evangelical Christians Get Funding to Mentor Prisoners
By Mike Rhodes
February 9, 2005
One by One Leadership, an evangelical Christian group in Fresno California has just received a grant from the Bush administration to mentor the children of prisoners. The $360,000 a year grant is from the Department of Health and Human Services "compassion capital fund." Doug Davidian, a Fresno businessman and vice chairperson of One by One Leadership was quoted in The Fresno Bee as saying, "Because we’re a faith-based organization, there’s money available to us that isn’t to those going through the front door. There are 99,000 people going through the front door. We’re going through the side door."
The Bush administration is in the process of implementing massive cutbacks in funding for health, education, environmental, and other government agencies. This week, Bush proposed cutting 48 education programs totaling $4.3 billion, slashing the amount given to local firefighters, the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget would be reduced from by $450 million, and a program providing low-income people with home heating aid would be reduced.
According to The Bee, the compassion capital fund that is channeling money to One by One Leadership in Fresno, "is only one of a myriad of funding programs grouped under the faith-based umbrella." There are over 150 programs funneling $50 billion to faith based and community groups according to a 67-page booklet published by the White House.
The One by One Leadership’s web site says "An estimated 10,000 children in Fresno have a parent incarcerated in a state or federal prison. Without effective intervention, 70 percent of these children will likely follow their parent's path into incarceration." How will prisoners themselves react to this new program? According to Maria Telesco, a long time advocate for prison reform and human rights for prisoners "one sector of prisoners are evangelical fundamentalist Christians (EFC) and they will fall upon their knees shouting hallelujah." Telesco, who is also the chairperson of the Fresno chapter of Death Penalty Focus says, however, that not all prisoners will want the fundamentalist Christians indoctrinating their children. "Another sector, Black Muslims and Arab Muslims, for example would raise holy hell and tell the EFCs to keep their hands off."
Another local prisoner rights activist, who wished to remain anonymous said "many prisoners will see the dark side of this (project of One by One Leadership). In prison you learn very quickly not to trust anyone and to question the motives of anyone who offers you anything. You get paranoid rapidly on the inside. I suspect that some, perhaps particularly Blacks who often talk about genocide etc., and certainly have the right to be skeptical, they will suspect their kids are being brainwashed to spy on the parents, or to be taken away to join cults etc. I think they would react about like a Jew in Nazi Germany who is offered a nice train ride in the country."
Walt Parry, the Executive Director of Fresno Metro Ministry did not comment directly on the One by One Leadership project but did say "It appears that from the very beginning President Bush wanted to diminish the federal government's role in programs that help low-income and moderate income persons. By "breaking the bank" through his tax cuts primarily for the wealthy he will drastically decrease federal revenues for years to come. That decrease in revenues plus new expenses for faith-based ventures will drive up the deficit, and long-term resources like Medicaid, food stamps, and other vital helping services will be cut by as much as thirty percent. The ongoing cost of the war is another factor. It appears to be a deliberate strategy."
Rev. Bryan Jessup, of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno was more blunt. He said "Faith Based Funding is a cynical and cunning manipulation of public opinion so people are persuaded by sentimentality to allow ‘the winners’ to claim more and more of the taxpayers money as part of their ‘spoils’ which they then dole out to religious enclaves that support them and dutifully wait for their reward."
Jessup said "that compliant religious organizations, ones that do not question the distribution of wealth and power and ones that do not question the system of corporate domination that rules our planet, will receive taxpayer funding and that more disruptive ones will not, goes without saying.
And to get help from these organizations, one will not only have to ‘give his or her heart to Jesus,’ he or she will also have to give his or her heart to a theology that equates giving one’s heart to Jesus with submitting to social norms that make people compliant and convenient for corporate use. This – by the standards of any religion – is blasphemy!"
The Bush administration has cut taxes for the wealthy, decreased funding for services that help the poor, and is now channeling tax money to faith based groups to provide social services. The framework for this dramatic shift in the way our government works is described in George Lakoff’s new book Don’t think of an Elephant . Lakoff describes this as the strong father model, which rewards the rich while punishing the poor.
The philosophy of the neo-cons, according to Lakoff, is that the rich deserve their wealth because they work hard. The poor are like misguided children that need to be disciplined and that de-funding social service programs will force them to become more self sufficient. By reducing governments role in funding social services and transferring that work to the right wing faith based groups, the Bush administration is transforming not only the way our government operates, but the relationship between church and state. Some have described the shift as the emergence of the American Taliban.
The alternative model, according to Lakoff, is the nurturing family model where people take care of each other, there is compassion for those less fortunate than yourself, and an optimistic view that the world can be a just and fair place to live. This model is not based on fear and retaliation. It is based on justice, fairness, and hope for a better future. In this alternative model, everyone on the planet shares resources more equally, there is greater environmental justice, and the risks of war are greatly reduced.
While the goal of the Bush administration in funding groups like One by One Leadership have huge implications, the response by the progressive community must be equally clear. Maria Telesco concluded her comments by asking a rather simple question: "instead of giving billions to Faith Based quacks, why not spend a small portion of that money on jobs & education so parents would not be in prison in the first place?