This week, amongst the higher-profile resignations of White House press secretary Scott McClellan, and Chief of Staff Andrew Card, comes the quiet exit of Jim Towey, Director of the White House Office of Faith-Based & Community Initiatives. His resignation has mostly revived talk of separation of Church and State, and the role of government funding religious organizations. For modern Pagans however he will remain famous as the official who questioned Pagan charity and prompted a lot of soul-searching and controversy within the modern Pagan communities.
It all started back in November 2003 during a web Q&A, someone asked him if Pagans would be eligible for money from the Office of Faith-Based & Community Initiatives. His answer didn’t endear him overmuch to Pagans.
“I haven’t run into a Pagan faith-based group yet, much less a Pagan group that cares for the poor! Once you make it clear to any applicant that public money must go to public purposes and can’t be used to promote ideology, the fringe groups lose interest. Helping the poor is tough work and only those with loving hearts seem drawn to it”.
A pretty bold statement. Some were unsurprised considering Bush’s earlier statements regarding modern Paganism, some were completely outraged at the statements, but others wondered if modern Paganism was doing any good for local communities. Were there modern Pagans helping the poor? The answer actually ended up being yes, they do. Towey received over 1500 letters from modern Pagans and actually met with “one or two” in Washington following his comments. In a later online chat he recanted his earlier statement.
“I meant no ill will toward any individual or group in my response to the question I was asked the last time I was on-line. People with loving hearts can come from many different faiths and backgrounds, and indeed, many who volunteer to help others or donate money to charities may not be motivated by faith at all.”
Despite that, Towey seemed confused as to what a “Pagan” was. Perhaps influenced by his Catholic background, Towey often seemed to infer that “Pagan” actually meant “atheist”.
Pagan leader Red Selchie, who briefly met with Towey after the “Pagan” comments, also became concerned that the whole organization Towey was heading is lacking in accountability and transparency. Needed elements if the program is going to be truly fair in how it decides where funds will go.
“Looking back over my twenty plus years of working as a social worker and nurse, I know that Christian based organizations have always gotten federal monies to provide services. Most of the time, they do an excellent job. If there is one thing that Christianity does well, it’s provide for the poor with charity work. I don’t have a problem with that; I believe if there is one thing we Pagans can learn from our Christian brothers and sisters, it’s how to be more charitable to those less fortunate. It’s not even really a religious issue, it’s a human issue. Nor do I even really have a problem with the majority of the funds being sent to Christian organizations. As far as religious charity organizations go, they do make up a majority. But I would object to minority religions not being given the same opportunity to access those funds, or be denied because of the fact they are a minority. Mr. Towey, er, Jim, assures me that isn’t the case, but the plain fact is, unless they are keeping records and being held accountable, they can’t prove it.”
In his tenure over 2 billion was distributed to faith-based organizations. Most of it with little to no oversight, and perhaps going to questionable sources.
For Pagans, Towey represents a strange turning point. It may be the first time a cabinet-level official has addressed and commented on modern Paganism, yet it seems somewhat obvious that Towey put a good face (he did work with Mother Teresa after all) on Bush’s desire to enrich Christian groups and erode the barrier between Church and State. In the end this may be the most disempowering administration for anyone adhering to a minority faith in recent history. Considering Bush’s tendency to promote cronies from within, I think Towey will be the friendliest face modern Pagans will see from the Bush administration.
Towey is leaving his White House position for the presidency of St. Vincent College in Latrobe. He also promises to work on his ultimate career goal, getting to Heaven. So farewell Jim Towey, here’s hoping you achieve your career goal.