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from issue no. 03 - 2006

Separate yes, but cooperative

George W. Bush wanted a Democrat to head the White House Office that finances the charitable and social initiatives of the Churches and communities. A friend of Mother Teresa’s. Meeting with Jim Towey

Interview whit Jim Towey by Giovanni Cubeddu

George W. Bush during the Faith Based and Community Initiatives 
in Washington 9 March 2006

George W. Bush during the Faith Based and Community Initiatives in Washington 9 March 2006

In the biggest conference room of the Hilton Washington Hotel the meeting has just ended. Around George W. Bush there are people who come from every State of America – they are “social entrepreneurs”, and they are about 1,200 – who reach out to gain a handshake from the president. It is the annual national meeting of the Faith Based and Community Initiatives, (FBCI). The FBCI is an Office of the White House that permits social and charitable initiatives undertaken by lay communities or religious organizations to be able to obtain federal financing, naturally with a minimum of control over how the public money is spent and so that the final concrete results are encouraging.
Jim Towey has been head of the Faith Based and Community Initiatives since 2002 (www.fbci.gov). A member of the Democrat Party, an affiliation he claims, Towey has succeeded – with a small but lively team of seven functionaries – in forming a bridge between the federal government and all the bodies that offer social services, by simplifying the procedures of access to public funding.From 1 July on Towey will be president of the oldest Benedictine College in the United states, the Saint Vincent College, leaving tasks and distinctions to his successor at the head of the FBCI. We met him.
Mr. Towey, you worked for twelve years as a volunteer for Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Now, at least once a week, you have met President Bush to discuss with him the operative relations between Churches and State, in the field of charity and social help.
JIM TOWEY: President Bush started this initiative as a compassion initiative to help the poor. Because this faith-based initiative would be a monument of hypocrisy if it didn’t translate into something good for the poor, for the misfits. If the government partners with religious charities they can together transform something in the lives of people. The president chose me personally because he wanted someone who had worked with the poor and of course Mother Teresa had spoiled me. She spoiled me by teaching me many things about the poor, their greatness, the greatness of the poor, that they are our brother, our sister, and not a burden. They’re a gift. So I consider it a privilege to have worked for the president for four years now, having also had the privilege of introducing him and his wife Laura to Mother Teresa’s successor, sister Nirmala. In concrete the president believes that the separation of Church and State should not serve to suppress the freedom of religious expression but, on the contrary, should be useful in encouraging and permitting it. And this means unleashing the goodness of America so often found in people full of faith: you know that 95% of Americans believe in God. We Americans have a challenge to live up to theses ideals and not just to talk about them. But we have a lot to learn from the world about compassion, just like what Mother Teresa taught to the world from India.
As a Catholic, how did you find the running of this Office that touches the interests of different religious realities?
TOWEY: Personally I enjoy a wonderful relationship with the Evangelical Christians and other mainline Protestant groups. I have been warmly received. We all share a single baptism that joins us and is a very strong bond. They too are happy about promoting the faith, so the rest comes afterwards. We could very well have someone else who was not a Catholic, like me, in this job. Because it’s not about promoting a religion but about getting results in federal programs in favor of the poor. Therefore it’s about being effective. So these connections with other Christians are nice for me on a personal level, but then, professionally, my job is to work for the American taxpayers, in the service of this administration, for the advantage of those who have Christian faith, for those who have a different one and those who have no particular faith at all... It is the greatness of our country to be able to have so many different faiths that work together.
Concretely, how much financing do you bestow?
TOWEY: Last year we gave out over two billion dollars in two thousand grants to charities connected to many religious denominations. What the president has done is to assist whoever wants to apply for funds. It can be an Afro-American Church in a poor neighborhood, Muslim organizations – the Aga Khan Foundation receives millions of dollars – Evangelicals, Catholics…
The Missionary Sisters of Charity of Mother Teresa of Calcutta in the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington

The Missionary Sisters of Charity of Mother Teresa of Calcutta in the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington

There have been polemics about the question of the use of the funds, whether, that is, it is lawful to repair or construct churches with them, as happened for example after the hurricane Katrina.
TOWEY: During the first fifty years of American history, tax payers did pay for the construction of churches, but that changed with the evolution of many Supreme Court decisions about the First Amendment, which prevents Congress from making any law that “institutionalizes” a religion. The current interpretation of that does not permit the government to fund any “sectarian” activities, including the construction of a church. But there have been exceptions made that were not challenged in court. After the Oklahoma city bombing the government paid for a religious building. President Bush maintains that we shouldn’t fund a faith, or fund proselytizing or preaching and often if the construction of a church is funded, it is precisely this. But the discussion about schools directed by religious is different, they can receive federal aid like any other school.
The American system is not founded on a social State worthy of the name. Does this not make it more difficult to provide a service for the disadvantaged?
TOWEY: The environment is good for social entrepreneurs because the president believes that, thanks to the innovation and the creativity they can bring, they can stimulate within the poor a desire to do better. You can provide services that sustain an individual, that give him food and shelter and clothing, that help him grow and not become an outcast and a danger to society, when for example he risks entering the world of drugs or of crime. Religious organizations can do all that and we should encourage them, as we should encourage the small social entrepreneurs.
I look at Europe and you see a genuine concern for people, where many associations that take care of the needy exist. This is admirable. I claim that even though the United States doesn’t have a politic of the Welfare State it still wishes to respond with sincerity to the same questions about how to take care of your neighbor. But these are fundamental questions, always and forever: «Am I my brother’s, my sister’s, keeper?». These are the questions that ring out through time and today too, and I ask them of myself: is that drug addict in New York city my brother? Who is my neighbor? These are questions the Church has raised for years but they are also civic questions. It’s a scandal that in a country as prosperous as America that these pockets of despair and poverty still exist.
President Bush led his country, and many others, to the war in Iraq, whose results we see…
TOWEY: I have a real admiration for Saint Thomas More who said, ‘I’m the King’s good servant, but God’s first’. I’m the President’s good servant, but God’s first. I admire the president because he’s a good man but I don’t necessarily agree with him on everything. And then he’s not the type who demands that of the people who work with him. He feels very strongly about political freedom and religious freedom and about what freedom means, ­– that it’s engraved, a gift from God and not from the United States.
I worked for Mother Teresa and therefore I know what it’s like to work for a saint and President Bush doesn’t consider himself a saint. But he’s sincere about his faith and I admire that. The White House is not Heaven, except perhaps for some people whose goal in life is to be in politics. It’s not Heaven and the president knows this. He has very good priorities: he loves his family, his country, he loves God, and he’s trying to lead in a very complicated era. The war in Iraq has not been popular in Europe nor how it was initiated, and he knows that. There are however the friendships he enjoys in Europe, with our allies and with all those who want to promote freedom. But the problem is how this freedom should be promoted and sometimes there’s disagreement precisely about how to do that.
Undoubtedly the criticisms of those who fear interference by the State in the Church and vice versa are noticed in your office.
TOWEY: Mother Teresa’s only political pressure was her smile. She was once asked by someone how to spread a little peace in the world and she replied, ‘by beginning to smile at one another’, because these little acts of love, according to the suggestion of Saint Teresa of Lisieux, could change people. I think of Mother Teresa every day and pray, I ask for her intercession. She was so respectful of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists … She used to say to me: «Don’t ruin God’s work». And I pray that I am not ruining God’s work.

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