Home > 2008 elections, Religion > Obama's faith-based initiative

Obama's faith-based initiative

I’ve been ignoring this for some reason. The initial outrage was based on an inaccurate AP story, but there’s still a lot to think about.

On the second day of a weeklong tour intended to highlight his values, Mr. Obama traveled to the battleground state of Ohio on Tuesday to present his proposal to get religious charities more involved in government programs. He is scheduled to give an afternoon speech here outside of the Eastside Community Ministry, a program providing food, clothes and youth ministry.

“Now, I know there are some who bristle at the notion that faith has a place in the public square,” Mr. Obama intends to say. “But the fact is, leaders in both parties have recognized the value of a partnership between the White House and faith-based groups.”

Presumably I’m one of those people bristling. What role faith has in the “public square” isn’t really the issue for me. It’s whether we should be giving religious groups money.

He thus embraced the heart of a program, established early in the Bush administration, that critics say blurs the constitutional separation of church and state. Mr. Obama made clear, however, that he would work to ensure that charitable groups receiving government funds be carefully monitored to prevent them from using the money to proselytize and to prevent any religion-based discrimination against potential recipients or employees.

This seems awkward. Say you’re considering giving money to a charity run by the Church of the FSM. As part of their mission, this group proselytizes to those receiving aid and hires only those who agree to a statement affirming their faith in the FSM. So, the group has to change its hiring practices. Would a religious charity want to do this? Some would, some wouldn’t, presumably. What about proselytizing? I suppose the lowest impact change they’d have to make would be to stop proselytizing as part of whatever program was receiving aid. The government wouldn’t be directly funding proselytizing. But aren’t you indirectly, at that point? Unless you’re forcing the group to cease any proselytizing, at which point it would seem that you’ve made it into a secular charity, isn’t that group just going to reroute money from the program the government is funding to other programs which do proselytize? Is that really much different than funding them directly? Granted, you can take that logic and make a case that funding any group is indirectly giving money to those whom your new aid dissuades contributions from. Still, it seems possibly reasonable if applied only to money routed within a group.

My questions become:

1. If the groups receiving aid have to cease all proselytizing and discriminatory hiring, why is this program different from one that allocates money to secular charities?
2. If a group doesn’t have to cease all proselytizing, just that which occurred as part of the program the aid is earmarked for, aren’t you indirectly funding exactly what you’re trying to avoid? The caveat to that question is that I have my doubts that that logic is generally accepted for other restrictions on government aid.

Let’s take a quick look at a possible application of the Lemon test, which is always a fun exercise:

1. The program has a pretty clear secular purpose: increasing charity work.
2. Its primary effect is a little more tricky. If government isn’t allowed to fund religious charities in general (presumably because they do advance religion) and if the program directs more non-government money to the normal work of religious charities, isn’t one of its primary effects to advance religion?
3. My sense is that safeguards are going to be tricky to define and difficult to enforce. Maybe it’s more trouble than its worth.

I think Obama’s on dangerous ground, but it’s not surprising. It seems like his governing philosophy is one that wants to include faith as much as possible, so it isn’t inconsistent for him to advocate this. Of course, you’d have to pretty naive to assume that the prospect of evangelical votes isn’t behind this to some extent. I guess we’ll see once Obama is elected.

Categories: 2008 elections, Religion
  1. Lina
    July 6, 2008 at 7:34 pm

    It was a sad day when I came to the realization during one of the many site visits for my social services class that: One, secular groups either can’t or just don’t have the fundraising/outreach ability and moral impetus for providing social services that religious groups have. And, two, the people receiving those services are already inclined to be religious (after all, most people are) and probably benefit from that religiosity more than the average person. Case in point: AA’s 12-step program.

    Never mind the fact that Obama does need to play up his supposed religiosity more than any other candidate in recent past (not just to win independents but to erase that Muslim rumor). It’d be foolhardy for any candidate to introduce a nuanced, hair-splitting position on this particular argument, since there’s currently no good replacement for these service groups. I’m sure in Obama’s ideal world, as in mine, the government would be structured and funded so as to provide these benefits, but that’s such a theoretical, abstract situation at this point that he has no choice but to embrace faith-based charities.

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