Allison Kilkenny: Unreported

Keeping the Faith, Ignoring the History

Posted in Barack Obama, politics, religion by allisonkilkenny on March 1, 2009

Susan Jacoby

a1a11111111NEARLY everyone now takes for granted the wisdom, constitutionality and inevitability of some form of federal financing for community social services run by religious groups. Who anymore can imagine that the United States managed to exist for over 200 years without the government providing any direct aid to faith and its works?

It is truly dismaying that amid all the discussion about President Obama’s version of faith-based community initiatives, there has been such a widespread reluctance to question the basic assumption that government can spend money on religiously based enterprises without violating the First Amendment. The debate has instead focused on whether proselytizing or religious hiring discrimination should be permitted when church groups take public money. This shows how easy it is to institutionalize a bad idea based on unexamined assumptions about service to a greater good.

In 1996, President Bill Clinton started down the slippery slope toward a constitutionally questionable form of faith-based aid when he signed a welfare reform bill that included a “charitable choice” provision allowing religious groups to compete for grants. Under President George W. Bush, a separate White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives was established — a significant expansion of “charitable choice.” Mr. Bush, who instituted his faith-based program through executive orders rather than trying to get a bill establishing the office through Congress, quickly put the money to political use.

The administration provided large grants for projects favored by the Christian right, like Charles Colson’s Prison Fellowship Ministries and Teen Challenge, a drug rehabilitation program that openly pushed religious conversion (even using the phrase “completed Jews” to describe teenage converts from Judaism) as a way of overcoming addiction. John J. DiIulio Jr., the first director of Mr. Bush’s faith-based office, resigned after only eight months and later complained about the politicization of the program.

Throughout Mr. Bush’s second term, the Democratic Party’s “religious left” maintained that the party needed to shed its secular image to attract more religious voters. As far as these Democrats were concerned, the only problem with faith-based programs was that most of the money was going to religious and political conservatives.

Enter Barack Obama, who spoke the language of both faith and secularism — and who promised during the campaign to expand faith-based aid while, at the same time, prohibiting proselytizing and religious hiring discrimination in federally financed programs. Yet earlier this month when the president announced his new faith-based team, headed by a Pentecostal minister, Josh DuBois, Mr. Obama left the Bush orders in place and Mr. DuBois later announced that hiring practices would be vetted by the Justice Department “case by case.”

Some have tried to justify direct, White House-administered faith-based aid by pointing to long-established practices allowing programs like Medicare and Medicaid to pay for services provided to patients in religiously affiliated hospitals. But for these hospitals, nondiscrimination in both hiring and patient admissions was always a condition of eligibility for any federal money.

It is also worth noting that Mr. Obama’s compromise has drawn criticism not only from secularists and civil libertarians but from religious conservatives like R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who maintains that the unlimited right to proselytize and to hire members of their own faith is essential if churches are not to compromise their mission. As a thoroughgoing secularist, I consider Mr. Mohler much clearer-minded than Democratic faith-based advocates, who wish to believe that devout proselytizers are somehow going to stifle themselves while providing “secular” social services.

The fact is that many people served by these projects — including children with absent fathers, addicts and prisoners — form a captive audience. It cannot be easy to say no to a proselytizer if saying yes means a warm bed in a homeless shelter, extra help for a child or more privileges while serving jail time. Embrace Jesus as your savior and, who knows, you may get early parole.

Furthermore, as Mr. Mohler points out, there is also a peril to religious independence from government in these programs. What government gives, government can take away. What happens if hard-pressed African-American churches serving poor communities — where enthusiasm for faith-based initiatives has always been high and has only intensified during the current economic crisis — come to rely on government money and the rug is pulled out from under them by a future administration?

Those who argue in favor of more religious involvement in government, and vice versa, always claim that the First Amendment does not mandate separation of church and state but simply prohibits state preference for any church. But even by that religion-infused standard, faith-based aid cannot help but favor some religions over others. For instance, nearly all non-Orthodox Jewish groups and liberal ecumenical religious organizations are opposed to government subsidy. How can it not violate the First Amendment to set up a program that even by default favors those groups eager to jump on the federal gravy train?

The other canker at the heart of faith-based initiatives is the assumption that religiously based programs work better than secular and government efforts. For the faithful, though, the efficacy of these programs is an article of faith, not a conclusion supported by objective evidence.

Back in 2003, there was a flurry of excitement surrounding a study that at first glance seemed to suggest that participants in Mr. Colson’s prison programs in Texas had been rearrested at much lower rates than other released prisoners. There was just one problem: the study excluded everyone who quit the program in prison — two-thirds of the starting group. It is as if the Department of Education were to measure the success of public schools by not counting dropouts. This ought to give pause to Mr. Obama, who has spoken so often about restoring evidence and science to public policy-making.

President Obama might also take a moment to reread the religious freedom act passed by the Virginia General Assembly in 1786, with strong support from both Baptists and freethinkers. That law, which prohibited tax support for religious teaching in public schools, became the template for the establishment clause of the First Amendment and also helped establish our American tradition of government freedom from religious interference and religious freedom from government interference.

Yet we are moving blindly ahead with faith-based federal spending as if it were not a radical break with our past. If faith-based initiatives, first institutionalized by the executive fiat of a conservative Republican president, become even more entrenched under a liberal Democratic administration, there will be no going back. In place of the First Amendment, we will have a sacred cash cow.

Susan Jacoby is the author of “The Age of American Unreason.”

2 Responses

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  1. History Matters said, on March 10, 2009 at 8:07 pm

    Jefferson had stronger ideas about limitations on religion than most of the founders. Some were simply a matter of putting the power in the right governmental hands. As a prime example, when he was President he would not declare a national day of prayer, which he was urged to do, but he DID declare a day of prayer for Virginia was he was governor. But do we want to follow all of Jefferson’s examples? As president (small “p”) of the Washington, D.C. public schools he approved the two sources of reading to be the Watts Hymnal and the Holy Bible. As President of the U.S. he proposed a treaty (which was ratified by Congress) that provided that federal money be used to support a Catholic priest and build a church and Catholic mission for ministry to the Kaskaskian Indians. (See: He attended Christian worship (held every Sunday for decades) in the U.S. Capitol Building, a building paid for by Federal Government money.

    To me, the “other” side of this is even treatment of religion. If the government is handing out money to various groups to perform public services, is it not discrimination to prohibit religious entities from receiving some of that money, especially if religion is the only reason for the prohibition? It has been decided clearly by The Supreme Court of the United States that if a public school opens its facilities to groups outside of school hours, religious groups must be included as well. Doesn’t the same logic apply to faith-based programs that the government might want to support because they are effective at their work and achieve the desired goals of the government?

  2. allisonkilkenny said, on March 10, 2009 at 10:03 pm

    My personal two cents: All religions should be taxed equally, purely because it’s a fact that many churches use the pulpit to endorse political candidates. And it’s unfair to only tax the religions that do this, or express preference for religions that don’t do this. It’s also impossible to stop churches from endorsing candidates as they claim it violates their Freedom of Speech (with which I agree.) Hence, a flat tax for all religions.

    I’m aware this is an unpopular opinion, but there it is, nonetheless. 🙂

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