More Faith-Based Follies: One Year Later, Initiative Remains Plagued With Problems

If Obama’s advisers believe championing the faith-based initiative is going to boost his standing among conservative evangelicals, they are sadly deluded.

The one-year anniversary today of the unveiling of President Barack Obama’s version of the “faith-based” initiative has pushed the issue back into the spotlight. Unfortunately, the news is not good.

Speaking at yesterday’s National Prayer Breakfast, Obama boasted that he had “turned the faith-based initiative around.”

I was surprised to read that statement, because everything I see indicates that we’re still fighting the same old battles over faith-based funding that erupted during the Bush years.

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn outlines the concerns many religious liberty advocates share in an op-ed on the Huffington Post. Conservative religious groups, Lynn points out, want the right to receive tax funding for social services while discriminating on religious grounds when hiring staff.

They also seek to provide publicly funded services in areas festooned with religious signs and symbols and want minimal oversight over their activities.

“One year after Obama announced his version of the faith-based office, civil rights and civil liberties groups such as mine are still fighting Bush-era battles over tax funding to religious groups that proselytize, job discrimination on religious grounds in public programs and lack of accountability,” observes Lynn. “It’s disheartening.”

Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal today has a piece reporting that Obama staffers are using the initiative to court religious conservatives. The president named a 25-member council to advise him on this issue and others, and so far, it looks like conservatives have the upper hand.

Reports The Journal, “Conservatives on the council are pleased with the direction the White House is taking. ‘As a conservative, I do feel there is a willing ear’ in the White House, said council member Frank Page, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention. “If there’s ever a time that the White House needs to say, ‘We need to keep our ears open,’ this is it.”

Religious leaders are pressing for even more influence. On Wednesday, The Washington Post quoted Jim Wallis, an evangelical leader who supports the “right” of publicly funded faith-based groups to discriminate in hiring.

“I want [Obama] to listen to faith groups as much as he listens to people on Wall Street,” Wallis said. “I want him to listen to faith groups as much as military leaders on Afghanistan.”

What are we to make of all of this?

First off, if Obama’s advisers believe championing the faith-based initiative is going to boost his standing among conservative evangelicals, they are sadly deluded. At the Religious Right meetings I attend, the rage and hate against Obama is palpable.

The rank-and-file members of these organizations despise the president because of his stands on social issues like abortion, gay rights and so on. This base will not be pulled away from their anger simply because a handful of conservative religious leaders are being invited to meetings at the White House.

Instead of playing to an audience that will never support him, Obama would do better to fulfill the promise he made as a candidate. During a July 2008 speech in Ohio, Obama vowed to reform the faith-based initiative. He said, “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. And we’ll also ensure that taxpayer dollars only go to those programs that actually work.”

Good plan. How about putting it into effect?

As for Jim Wallis, his comment that Obama should listen more to religious leaders should really be interpreted this way: “Obama should listen more to religious leaders who believe as I do.” Wallis claims to be a moderate, and I doubt he would be happy if Obama suddenly started taking his marching orders from the Southern Baptist Convention’s Richard Land.

Wallis believes religious groups should have more influence over the political system. I say they have quite enough. They deserve no more or less than any other special-interest group out there. And, in light of the First Amendment’s church-state separation provisions, there may well be times when they simply can’t have what they want.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the faith-based initiative is beyond repair or reform. A government office that does nothing but looks for ways to conjoin religion and government simply can’t be squared with the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state.

Michael D. Tanner, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, summed up well the faith-based initiative’s faults in a recent column. I don’t agree with libertarians on certain issues, but this piece is spot on.

“Government money never comes without strings,” Tanner observes. “In the case of faith-based organizations, legitimate concerns about the separation of church and state mean that charities must prove they are not using government funds for proselytizing and other exclusively religious activities. This can impose significant administrative burdens on small local charities and give government the ability to snoop through a church’s books and records.”

We could avoid these problems, and a host of others, by getting government out of the business of funding religion.