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TN's Office of Faith-Based Initiatives will get $1.2 million. To do what? Who knows.
There's no clear indication of where the taxpayer dollars are going
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Even since Bill Lee was first elected governor of Tennessee in 2018, he’s made religion a centerpiece of his administration. Now, for the first time, his Republican allies will be spending $1.2 million of taxpayer money to boost religious groups, but it’s unclear where the money is going.
The state’s Republicans have a history of letting primarily Christian groups get away with anything. When COVID left the state especially vulnerable, Lee limited indoor gatherings to 10 people while exempting religious services from that requirement, which made as much sense as using an umbrella with a giant hole in it. One church responded by hosting a three-day massive, maskless New Year’s Eve blowout. (A member defended the move by saying that if people got sick, they could “come to the church and let the elders lay hands on them and pray for them and the sick will be healed.”)
A week after that, before vaccines were readily available, Lee announced a new plan to deal with the COVID crisis: His newly established Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives would send out prayers three times a week over the next month.
That’s it. 12 prayers. No mask mandate.
Months later, Tennessee was suffering the “most COVID-19 infections per capita” in the nation. Lee soon declared a “Day of Prayer & Fasting” to solve the problem he made worse. (It didn’t help either.)
Naturally, the Republicans in Tennessee are responding to the utter failure of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives by… throwing taxpayer money at it. The office, which claims to connect “faith, community, and government,” will now receive $1.2 million a year in taxpayer dollars.
There is a way this could be beneficial for the state. Plenty of faith-based non-profit groups do excellent work without proselytizing. Leaders are just inspired by their religious beliefs to help others. But there’s no indication those groups are getting the money.
Vivian Jones of The Tennessean explains:
The money will go to hiring five new core staff members and six community liaisons. In the past, the office has operated with six staff members supported by private funding, according to annual reports.
Outside of the plans to hire new staff, few details are available on the office's specific spending plans. The governor’s office, for instance, has no budget records detailing how the office will spend the money. Oversight is left to a nonprofit board.
There’s no budget available for the office, no list of groups they’ve worked with, no email records explaining why the office needed $1.2 million.
It’s not like they’re paying for social media. The office’s X/Twitter account hasn’t been updated since November of 2021 while the Facebook page has been dead since December of 2022. Neither one appears to promote any religion outside of Christianity or Judaism. The organization’s all-volunteer board doesn’t seem to have any representation outside of those religions either.
Even more telling: “As of Aug. 11, the website URL redirects to a Malaysian lottery website.”
Executive Director Lance Villio, the guy in charge of the office who will be making $165,000 this year (in addition to a $12,000 car allowance), said all that’s just a consequence of having a small team… which will come as a shock to those who handle social media and get shit done by themselves for a fraction of the cost (at best). Villio also has an assistant making $48,000/year who doesn’t update anything.
But social media problems aside, where will the infusion of money go? Which faith-based groups are eligible to receive the funding? How will the office make sure one religion doesn’t get preferential treatment and smaller religions aren’t left to fend for themselves?
The Tennessean found that, of the 84 groups Villion met with since running the office, only three were non-Christian. And meeting with them is a far cry from working with them.
There’s simply no indication that this office knows what it’s doing or that it has a mission beyond funneling money to primarily Christian groups. This is what Jones was able to find:
Under its previous director, Dave Worland, the office facilitated an initiative to encourage Tennesseans to pray for state leaders, which about 900 people signed up for, according to the office's 2021 annual report, the latest available.
It also drafted guidance for houses of worship to continue operating during the coronavirus pandemic, and hosted calls to help victims of natural disasters navigate applications for state and federal assistance.
The office also collaborated to create a portal to map nonprofits and houses of worship across the state and facilitate connections, and started a podcast to feature nonprofit leaders. The podcast does not appear to have been updated since 2021. The office also launched a "TN Hope Line" to offer connection and encouragement for older adults. The phone number has been disconnected.
In other words, their accomplishments are things a dedicated volunteer could’ve done for free or a teenager could’ve done for a basic salary. Helping victims of disasters navigate applications for assistance is worthy goal, but there’s no reason that could be relegated to this office when it’s the state’s responsibility to help its citizens out.
We shouldn’t be surprised by this. What else can anyone expect from a Christian governor who once told a group of Southern Baptists that if “thousands of people offer similar prayers, he believes God will impart his favor on Tennessee.”
God can’t cure conservative ignorance, and conservatives can’t cure anything else.
This is what happens when you elect someone who’s more interested in spreading the Bible than governing his state. You get plenty of appeals to conservative Christianity while chaos ensues around him and the people of his state suffer.
The people of Tennessee need a smarter governor and a better legislature, not a more powerful God.
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