By the Way: Obama and Faith-Based Initiatives

Barack Obama’s announcement that he would support an expansion of the Bush administration’s faith-based initiatives program represents, at once, a radical departure from the “orthodoxy” of the Democratic Party as well as an exercise in timidity.

Obama’s experience as an organizer in Chicago exposed him to the good things that religious groups can accomplish in the arena of social amelioration. Surely, as Obama acknowledged, some of the social problems we face as a nation are so intractable that we need government-private sector cooperation to address them, so why not enlist the grassroots energies of religious organizations in the delivery of social services?

That policy in itself is not so remarkable. Al Gore (though it is often forgotten) endorsed faith-based initiatives in the course of the 2000 presidential campaign. And Obama was careful to add that these religious organizations could not use taxpayer money to proselytize, and they cannot discriminate in their hiring practices.

As it stands, then, Obama’s plan could have the effect of angering just about everyone. Religious conservatives regard the prerogative to hire who they want (and, more to the point, to refuse employment to those they regard as unacceptable) as a kind of inalienable right, one that was pretty much guaranteed by the Bush administration. For these religious conservatives, the absence of such protections is a deal breaker. Obama’s proposal makes liberals uneasy because it appears to breach the wall of separation between church and state and expands the role of religious organizations in American society.

I don’t pretend to be a First Amendment scholar, but it has always seemed to me that there was no constitutional problem with the faith-based initiative proposal on the face of it. However, I’ve worried for a long time that there was potential for a great deal of mischief, as has been borne out by the Bush administration’s handling of faith-based grants. In other words, I find no problem with having religious organizations administer social services; the Salvation Army (which, let’s remember, is a religious denomination) has been doing so for decades. But if taxpayer funds are allotted to a religious group with the understanding, implicit or explicit, that the organization will provide some sort of political kickback (public endorsement from a minister, for instance, or partisan-inflected voter registration drives), then I think we have a problem.

Obama, however, eager to court religious voters—and sending a clear signal early in the campaign that he will not cede the evangelical vote to the Republican Party—apparently sees no such constitutional complications in the faith-based initiative program he proposes.

But Obama’s proposal suffers from timidity, and so I propose an approach that is simultaneously radical and unassailably conservative. Certainly, Obama is smart enough to know that throughout much of American history religious groups assumed the responsibility for social welfare and amelioration. If you go to almost any city in the United States, to take one example, you’ll find hospitals with religious names: Mercy Hospital, Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, Iowa Methodist Hospital and the like. This is only the most visible example of how religious groups assumed responsibility for social welfare.

What happened historically, of course, is that the social problems associated with the Great Depression became so overwhelming that the government had to step in. Unfortunately, however, religious organizations never reassumed their role in social amelioration in anything like the scale they had in the nineteenth century.

So here is my radical/conservative proposal: Obama should use the moral capital of his candidacy to call on religious organizations of all stripes to reassume the responsibility of social welfare in this country—poor relief, job training, credit counseling and so on. However, and this is the crucial component of the proposal, they must perform these functions out of their own resources, taking advantage of their long-standing tax exemptions (which amounts to a huge government subsidy) to do so. This reallocation of responsibility would remove these tasks from government and from the bureaucrats and allow religious organizations to act on their avowed principles of care for the disadvantaged in society.

A couple of caveats. The healthcare crisis, I think, is so overwhelming that the management and costs of medicine would have to be bracketed from this proposal; that requires a separate solution. Also, as Obama suggested in his faith-based proposal, these religious organizations would be held to society’s standards of equality and non-discrimination in their delivery of services. Because they would not be delivering their services with taxpayer funds, however, they would be free to hire whomever they wanted so long as they did not discriminate against anyone in the availability or the delivery of such services.

The corollary here is that the amount of the federal expenditures devoted to these services would be eliminated, thereby reducing the federal budget dramatically and saving taxpayers trillions of dollars. Conservatives, presumably, would like that. But for churches and other religious organizations it would require a dramatic reallocation of resources, using endowment funds to help the poor rather than pad a minister’s retirement plan. And perhaps building centers to serve the indigent rather than plowing up farmland to build yet another new megachurch with its satellite parking lots. Suburbanites might actually come to know their urban neighbors, and, with such a decentralized approach, we may finally get around to addressing the epidemic of rural poverty.

Talk about “ending welfare as we know it”? How about it, Mr. Obama?

Editor’s note: For Bill Berkowitz’s reporting and background on this issue, click here.

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