Soaring energy prices, an uncertain economy and the ongoing war in Iraq have dominated the 2008 presidential campaign. But for a few days this summer, a controversial church-state issue – the “faith-based” initiative – managed to grab the national spotlight.
Democratic presidential hopeful U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) put the focus on the initiative when he gave a major address in Zanesville, Ohio, July 1 during which he vowed to reform, re-name and expand the faith-based office. Shortly after that, Republican candidate U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was quick to point out that he, too, supports faith-based initiatives.
Advocates of church-state separation were pleased to see an important church-state issue on the national stage but were disappointed by the candidates’ stands.
When President George W. Bush took office in January of 2001, the first domestic program he announced was a faith-based initiative that, Bush said, would mobilize America’s religious communities to fight social ills like drug addiction, homelessness and poverty. He set up a special White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives to lead the charge.
Nearly eight years have passed, and critics say the initiative has been a disaster. It was never formally approved by Congress, but Bush has used executive orders and regulatory changes to move it forward. Money has been funneled to the president’s fundamentalist political allies, and the office has been used to boost Republican House and Senate candidates. Objective studies have failed to find evidence that the faith-based approach works any better than governmental or private secular programs.
In light of that track record, church-state separationists hoped the initiative would be shut down once a new president takes over in January of 2009. It doesn’t look as though that will be happening. In fact, the initiative may even be expanded.
Obama’s announcement attracted a lot of attention, in part because it was the candidate’s first major speech on the issue. The Illinois senator, who has been aggressively courting religious voters, told the Ohio crowd that the country needs “all hands on deck” to combat social ills.
“Now, I know there are some who bristle at the notion that faith has a place in the public square,” Obama said. “But the fact is, leaders in both parties have recognized the value of a partnership between the White House and faith-based groups….”
Obama charged that under Bush, “[T]he office never fulfilled its promise. Support for social services to the poor and the needy have been consistently underfunded. Rather than promoting the cause of all faith-based organizations, former officials in the office have described how it was used to promote partisan interests. As a result, the smaller congregations and community groups that were supposed to be empowered ended up getting short-changed.”
If elected, Obama said he will give the project a new name: the Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Obama vowed to prohibit proselytizing in taxpayer-funded programs and bar religious groups that take public money from hiring and firing on the basis of religion – reforms that could amount to a major break with the Bush approach.
“Now, make no mistake,” Obama said, “as someone who used to teach constitutional law, I believe deeply in the separation of church and state. But I don’t believe this partnership will endanger that idea – so long as we follow a few basic principles.
“First,” he continued, “if you get a federal grant, you can’t use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can’t discriminate against them – or against the people you hire – on the basis of their religion. Second, federal dollars that go directly to churches, temples and mosques can only be used on secular programs.”
At the same time, Obama promised to significantly extend the initiative’s reach. Many small religious groups, he said, are shut out of government grants because they don’t know how to apply for the money.
“Well, that will change when I’m president,” Obama said. “I will empower the nonprofit religious and community groups that do understand how this process works to train the thousands of groups that don’t.”
A few days later, Obama returned to the theme, telling a gathering of black pastors in St. Louis that he will make faith-based social services “a moral center of my administration.”
Obama’s decision to highlight the issue forced McCain to address faith-based initiatives as well.
The day after Obama’s Ohio speech, McCain’s campaign issued a short statement stressing the candidate’s support for the faith-based approach but breaking with Obama over the issue of hiring.
“John McCain supports faith-based initiatives, and recognizes their important role in our communities,” the statement asserted. “He has co-sponsored legislation to foster improved partnerships with community organizations, including faith-based organizations, to assist with substance abuse and violence prevention. He also believes that it is important for faith-based groups to be able to hire people who share their faith, and he disagrees with Senator Obama that hiring at faith-based groups should be subject to government oversight.”
Conservative groups and supporters of the faith-based initiative were unsure how to react to the Obama announcement. Loath to say anything nice about a plan put forth by a Democrat, they instead lashed out at the Illinois senator for saying he would not support tax-funded employment discrimination.
“It is deeply troubling that Sen. Obama intends to curtail the religious staffing freedom when a faith-based organization receives federal funds,” Stanley Carlson-Thies, director of social policy studies at the Center for Public Justice, told the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy.
Tom Minnery, senior vice president of Focus on the Family, said Obama was on the wrong track.
“We’ll have to wait and see whether the Obama program will resist the efforts of the ACLU and other leftists who always reject what they call ‘discrimination’ in hiring,” Minnery said. “Without the ability to hire freely, faith-based programs will fail.”
James H. Towey, former director of the White House faith-based office, asserted in a USA Today column that Obama’s decision had vindicated Bush’s decision to create the office. But Towey went on to criticize Obama’s refusal to allow discrimination in hiring and accused the senator of politicizing the issue by unveiling his plan in the battleground state of Ohio.
Richard Land, top Washington lobbyist for the Southern Baptist Convention, was quick to pile on.
“If you can’t hire people within your faith community, then you’ve lost the distinctive that is the reason why faith-based programs exist in the first place,” Land griped to The New York Times.
The faith-based issue reached the front-burner at an opportune time for the civil liberties and civil rights communities. For weeks prior to the Obama announcement, many of these organizations had been working on an effort designed to open up a dialogue with both campaigns over faith-based funding.
On July 10, the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination (CARD) sent a five-page letter to the Obama and McCain campaigns, outlining various concerns about the faith-based initiative.
The letter, signed by 43 religious, public policy and civil liberties organizations, traces the history of faith-based efforts and urges the candidates to not allow proselytism or discrimination in hiring in government-funded positions and to respect local anti-discrimination laws.
The letter cautions the candidates about the dangers of direct government funding of houses of worship. In the past, religious groups that have accepted public funds have generally done so through separately incorporated entities. Bush administration officials have argued that this creates an additional burden for religious groups, an assertion both Obama and McCain seem to accept.
“Direct government funding of houses of worship represents a radical erosion of First Amendment principles, endangering the autonomy of religious bodies by allowing government intrusion directly into the activities of houses of worship,” observes the letter.
Elsewhere the Coalition letter asserts, “Many religious organizations are rightly wary of the Faith-Based Initiative; they remain concerned that their religious ministries would be subject to intrusive government regulations, including audits, reporting requirements, and compliance reviews.”
Signers include African American Ministers in Action, the American Jewish Committee, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, The Interfaith Alliance, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Human Rights Campaign, the National Education Association, the Secular Coalition for America, the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations and the United Methodist Church, General Board of Church and Society.
The resurgence of the issue also led to a flurry of news media coverage. After lying dormant for several months, the faith-based initiative was suddenly in the news again.
The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, was quoted in The Washington Post, The New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, the Baltimore Sun, the Chicago Tribune and other newspapers.
In addition, the AU director appeared on MSNBC’s “Countdown with Keith Olbermann” to discuss the issue and wrote an opinion column for the popular progressive blog Huffington Post. Headlined “Do We Really Need a ‘Faith-Based’ Initiative?,” the column argued that the best course would be to shut down the office entirely.
Asserted Lynn in the piece, “No, I’m not a fan of the faith-based initiative. That may seem odd, as I am a Christian minister. Let’s just say I come from the old school and take what these days is becoming an unusual view: Religion should pay its own way in the world. If Pastor Bob wants to start a ministry, good for Pastor Bob. Let Pastor Bob’s congregation pay for it.”
Not long after that, the McClatchy-Tribune News Service distributed another op-ed by Lynn taking issue with the faith-based initiative. In the column, which appeared in newspapers nationwide, Lynn noted that Americans oppose discrimination in publicly funded programs and scored the Bush administration for using the initiative for partisan purposes.
“I’ve always believed religious groups are better off raising their own money for social programs,” wrote Lynn. “It frees them to include religious messages in the programs and avoids entanglement with government red tape. If they take public dollars, they must play by the same rules others do.”
The AU executive director’s comments about public opinion were bolstered in July when Quinnipiac University in Connecticut released a poll showing that a solid majority of Americans, 77 percent, said groups receiving tax aid under the faith-based initiative should not be allowed to discriminate by hiring only members of their own faith.
Lynn wasn’t the only critic of a continued faith-based initiative. Oppoition also came from an unexpected source – a conservative Roman Catholic priest.
Writing on the National Review’s Web site, the Rev. Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute warned religious leaders to resist the lure of governmental support.
“Charities with a religious mission shouldn’t be getting mixed up in all that bureaucracy, all those regulations, and all those rules concerning their own internal management,” wrote Sirico. “Nor should they become dependent on taxpayers. Doing so skews the institutional mission of the charity. It just isn’t worth it.”
Continued the priest, “[I]f you want to do religiously motivated work in the United States, it is best to do it on your own dime. This is what American culture expects, a belief rooted very deeply in our history and current practice. I believe that this practice is best for the health of religion and the health of the state. We all benefit by keeping religion separate from the public sector so that it can better grow, flourish, and transform society.”
AU’s Lynn said Sirico makes a good point.
“The government is supposed to be neutral toward religion, neither favoring it nor disfavoring it,” Lynn said. “Creating a special office to direct public funds to religious groups is not neutrality, it is favoritism. To really respect our Constitution, it’s best that the faith-based initiative be relegated to the dustbin of history.”