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Obama's Faith-Based Initiative Proposal--Skeel

Barack Obama’s new faith-based initiative proposal has already been described as a Sister Souljah moment. In a sense it is. It’s a calculated jab at one group (the portion of the Democratic base that cringes at any overlap between religion and government) that demonstrates his bona fides to another (all those Americans who hold less separationist views). But the original Sister Souljah moment was almost purely symbolic. This one could have important practical implications if Obama becomes president.

Obama’s proposal differs from the version President Bush promoted at precisely the point where the Bush program met its Waterloo. President Bush insisted that religious charities should be able to discriminate on religious grounds in their hiring decisions. This aspect of the plan met fierce resistence early in Bush’s first term, both among those who are hostile to any government funding of religious organizations and among those who suspected that the program involved the government so deeply in religion that it would be struck down under the Establishment Clause. The initiative was quickly derailed, and has survived only as a tiny shadow of the original plan.

Obama’s proposal, by contrast, would not permit religious organizations to make hiring and firing decisions based on faith in any portion of the organization that received public funds.

This makes his program much less attractive to evangelical organizations like Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship, which have been reluctant to separate the evangelistic and social missions of the organization. But the program is almost certain to be Constitutional, and it would face much less political resistence than the Bush version.

When President Bush first came into office, evangelicals enthusiasts for faith-based funding thought they could have their cake and eat it too: participate in government funding while remaining– as John DiIulio puts it– faith-saturated rather than simply faith-based. The lesson of the past eight years seems to be that it’s not possible to have both.

In his recent book Godly Republic, DiIulio makes a powerful case for compromising a little on faith-saturation in order to gain access to funding. Why should a university get millions of dollars of funding, he asked the students in a seminar of mine last year, while the tiny faith-based organizations that are directly addressing the crises in devastated urban communities are shut out? Many of the organizations on the front line, he argues, are too immersed in the needs all around them to worry about the faith-commitments of those who offer to help.

I personally am torn about this issue. I find DiIulio’s case (and his example) extremely powerful. But I remain uncomfortable with the idea of separating evangelicalism from social outreach in a Christian organization. I’m a faith-saturationist at heart.

But I suspect most Americans either favor the kind of program Obama is proposing or wouldn’t actively oppose it. Which suggests that an Obama presidency could mean the kind of funding to faith-based organizations that was only dreamed of during the Bush era.

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Comments ( 4 )

Many Americans wouldn't oppose it because it seems to be couched so laudably - non-discrimination is almost always applauded, and President Bush's plan played right into hysterical claims about government support of religious discrimination.

However, in this case, intelligent religious organizations, and indeed all Americans, should be extremely wary. This is a step towards provisions whereby any organization which accepts funds from the U.S. Government must be prepared to adapt its institution to a secularized vision. It is a rather insidious way - non-discrimination claims - to discriminate by levelling the field.

Wildflower patches grow beautifully, but can also get out of control. One can prune the dead flowers here and there, or mow the whole patch down to the bare stems.

Well put. I think that Obama's program runs the risk of alienating members of his base and offending those he wishes to woo. While the far left will vote for Obama no matter what happens between now and election day, I don't think many conservatives will settle for faith-based programs that will require them to hire and promote secular workers. On the one hand, churches relish governmental support for their outreach programs; on the other, they have to protect the integrity of their name.

The "Lemon Test" appears to provide a poor set of criteria for faith-based funding, and I would not be suprised to see the Supreme Court take up a case on the subject if Obama's plan were to be put into action. While I agree that many faith-based programs are saturated, I must also caution that governmental involvement in hiring practices of any body that receives its funding provides a slippery slope that might discourage charity on the part of churches and religious organizations.

"Which suggests that an Obama presidency could mean the kind of funding to faith-based organizations that was only dreamed of during the Bush era."

Yes, but, it seems, only if the organizations actually receiving the money aren't faith-based organizations, but rather semi-independent subsidiaries of faith-based organizations... right?


Which brings us back to consider another long-held view, that the government, properly limited in its partnership with faith-saturated organizations, isn't the best conduit for funds directed toward meeting those needs most dependent on faith for their solution, or even amelioration.

Perhaps it should therefore stop squeezing out faith-saturated organizations by vacuuming up funds otherwise available to them, in a vain attempt to fulfill promises it simply can't keep.