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.