European dream: the political theology of George W. Bush's faith-based initiative

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Author: Lew Daly
Date: Apr. 2008
Publisher: Berghahn Books, Inc.
Document Type: Report
Length: 11,150 words
Lexile Measure: 1520L

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Abstract: George W. Bush's controversial effort to direct government funds to religious social-service groups--his so-called 'faith-based initiative'--was influenced by confessional ideas about political order that are little understood in U.S. politics. Two key ideas from the Christian Democratic tradition in Europe played a formative role: the Dutch Calvinist theory of 'sphere sovereignty,' and the Catholic principle of 'subsidiarity'. This article describes what Bush set out to do with his faith-based initiative and investigates the confessional influences on this policy agenda in their European context. Viewed in this comparative light, Bush's vision of faith-based welfare is shown to be deficient in its understanding of the religious ideas on which it draws.

Keywords: Kuyper; Calvinism; faith-based initiatives; subsidiarity; Catholicism; Protestantism.


The Bush Administration often disparaged 'Old Europe' in promoting its new national security strategy and invasion of Iraq in 2002 and 2003. With its Jeffersonian ring of escaping the suffocating authority of the old world, this rhetoric dovetailed nicely, in 2004, with the Bush re-election campaign's privatization themes regarding health care and retirement security. Americans do not want to be limited, so the story goes, by suffocating cradle-to-grave protections like they have in Europe. In America, we stand alone and we take chances.

Yet, for all his antagonism to Old Europe's nuanced diplomatic worldview, Bush's own signature policy agenda, the so-called 'faith-based initiative', presents a striking contrast. A product of serious thinkers with precise theological convictions, Bush's faith-based initiative draws deeply on European ideas. Two key doctrines that arose from European Christianity's historic conflict with liberalism and socialism in the late nineteenth century are particularly important, Dutch Calvinist 'sphere sovereignty' and Catholic 'subsidiarity'. These religious doctrines, which became the cornerstone of Christian Democratic welfare systems in Europe, stand behind the constitutional and civil rights challenges of Bush's faith-based initiative. Why a Christian Democratic approach has made such headway in the United States at this time is a critical question of policy history and even political economy. But first we need a better understanding of the unique religious influences that have made this possible in Washington.

But before turning to a more detailed look at the theological ideas of the faith-based initiative, readers should understand what President Bush set out to do and how his efforts have fared since he took office in 2001. Essentially, the faith-based initiative is an effort to do two things: first, to increase the share of federal social welfare resources going to religious groups; and second, to protect and revitalize the religious identity of these groups through statutory and administrative changes in the procurement process.

This should be viewed in historical perspective. As the U.S. welfare state expanded in the late 1960s, religious social service organizations such as Catholic Charities, the Salvation Army, and Lutheran Social Services became major government contractors. In some cases, government funds made up more than fifty percent of these organizations' budgets (Black et al 2004: 21; Minow 2002: 74-76, 193, n.84). Yet these government partnerships clearly had a secularizing effect on both...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A178348221