First off, yes, this is advantageous to Bush politicially. As NPR pointed out a few nights ago, this will demonstrably and directly benefit some portions of society which have tended to vote Democratic in the past. I’m sure Bush knows that. I also don’t think it’s relevant to whether or not the initiatives are a good idea.
Second, there’s a question as to whether or not Bush had the right to issue this executive order. That’s the one that says religious groups can receive federal grants even if they display religious symbols in their facilities or discriminate in hiring on religious grounds. As Daily KOS pointed out earlier this month, this may be more rightfully a Congressional decision. In fact, discussion of this topic stalled in Congress last year. I dislike the idea that something devolves to Presidential decision simply because Congress is stuck on the issue.
Third, is it a good idea? I think yes, with caveats. Bush specifically called out some continuing and unaffected requirements for faith-based groups recieving funds. First, they can’t discriminate in who they help. Second, they can’t use the grant to proselytize. Those are key points, and he’s got ‘em covered.
The handbook (PDF) providing guidance to faith-based groups on these issues is worth reading, to get an idea of how careful Bush is being. Example question: “If someone asks me about my faith, can I share it with them?” “If someone asks you about your personal faith while you are providing a government-funded service, you may answer briefly. But if you wish to have a longer discussion on matters of faith, you should set up a time to speak with that person later.” I think that’s a fairly good balance between the right of a volunteer to free speech and the necessity to distinguish between church and state.
OK. So that’s the good. Now, the bad.
Critics who say that this could erode the separation between church and state are correct — they’re only wrong if they claim such erosion is inevitable. The biggest danger is that Bush will find his administration in the position of determining which religions are acceptable. It is utterly essential that Bush makes sure that the grants aren’t slanted towards any one brand of religion. It would be unfortunate (that’s dry sarcasm, there) if we looked up a year into this and discovered that no Islamic organization had gotten any grants. For that matter, the Church of Satan better be able to get a grant if it wants one. (It doesn’t; Satanists of that stripe are devout individualists. But you get the idea.)
Mind you, in one sense, this problem is no different than the question of which non-faith-based groups get grants; favoritism is favoritism. However, we ought to acknowledge that religious groups do occupy a special place in their ability to sway minds. That means we need to take more care with them. Fact of life; not an insult to religion by any means, but a recognition of the special role it plays in our society.
Withholding federal grants from religions isn’t a way to discriminate against religions; it’s a way to avoid favoring one over another. Characterizing it as the former (and Bush did that) is a disservice to the real danger.