Faith-based funding gone awry

FAITH-BASED FUNDING GONE AWRY….The idea that the Bush administration would use tax dollars to pay religious leaders to advance its agenda is, alas, not new. Throughout Bush’s first two years in office, for example, the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives routinely distributed grants to ministries that, coincidentally, Republicans were trying to curry favor with in key congressional races.

The practice of paying American religious leaders with our money raised all kinds of questions about church-state separation, corruption, cronyism, and exploitation of religion for partisan gain. But when it happens in Iraq, it poses a whole new set of problems.

A Pentagon contractor that paid Iraqi newspapers to print positive articles written by American soldiers has also been compensating Sunni religious scholars in Iraq in return for assistance with its propaganda work, according to current and former employees.

The Lincoln Group, a Washington-based public relations company, was told early in 2005 by the Pentagon to identify religious leaders who could help produce messages that would persuade Sunnis in violence-ridden Anbar Province to participate in national elections and reject the insurgency, according to a former employee.

Since then, the company has retained three or four Sunni religious scholars to offer advice and write reports for military commanders on the content of propaganda campaigns, the former employee said. But documents and Lincoln executives say the company’s ties to religious leaders and dozens of other prominent Iraqis is aimed also at enabling it to exercise influence in Iraqi communities on behalf of clients, including the military.

To be fair, we’re not talking about multi-million dollar bribes for clerics. The NYT reported that the Lincoln Group “spent about $144,000” on this propaganda program from May to September, and details are sketchy about exactly how many religious leaders were paid and how much each received.

What’s more, the program, at least on the surface, wasn’t explicitly about buying political support. The Sunni religious scholars were effectively public relations consultants, advising a Pentagon contractor on how to craft appealing messages.

It’s likely, however, that there will be serious political and practical implications. As the NYT explained, “Sunni religious scholars are considered highly influential within the country’s minority Sunni population.” Call it a hunch, but it’s not likely that Sunnis driving the insurgency will be pleased to know that we’re “contracting” with their spiritual leaders about disseminating propaganda. As Kleiman put it, “I can’t think of a better way to (1) discredit those who are genuinely on our side or (2) express contempt for Islam.”