Obama And Church-State Separation: The Good, The Bad And The Uncertain

When you take government money, you must dance to the state's tune.

I just got back from New York City, where I spoke at an interesting event sponsored by our friends at the Center for Inquiry.

On Tuesday night, a three-person panel discussed the issue "Church and State in the Obama Era" at All Souls Church, a Unitarian-Universalist congregation. I wouldn't call this event a debate; it was more of a discussion of where we stand under Obama – as I put it (taking off from the title of an old Clint Eastwood Western), "The Good, the Bad and the Uncertain."

Susan Jacoby, who has authored several books on secularism and the Religious Right, set the stage by outlining the issues. After that, I spoke followed by the Rev. Edwin C. Sanders II of the Metropolitan Interdenominational Church in Nashville. We then took questions.

All three of us agreed on certain things. We hope that Obama, unlike his predecessor, will appoint federal judges who support church-state separation. We'd like to see public policy based on science, not religion. We are concerned about ongoing efforts by the Religious Right to undermine the church-state wall.

We did clash a bit over the "faith-based" initiative, a Bush-era disaster that Obama has yet to fix.

Pastor Sanders' church accepts federal money to educate the African-American community about HIV prevention. He argued that the church plays such a key role in the black community that it is uniquely qualified to do this job.

To be fair to Pastor Sanders, it sounds as if he's doing all the rights things. His church runs its tax-supported program through a separately incorporated 501(c)(3) non-profit. No one gets proselytized. Sanders' church is fully supportive of same-sex relationships and has no truck with "ex-gay" movements.

And Pastor Sanders was quick to point out that when you take government money, you must dance to the state's tune. On one occasion, the church didn't like the conditions the state put forth, so it said no to the cash. Good for them.

But I know that not all churches out there are like the one Pastor Sanders leads. As I explained during the Q&A, I am concerned about "filters." When the government has a message it wants to get out to a target audience and decides to a pay a religious group to spread that message, that group is acting as a filter standing between the government and the recipient.

What is that filter saying or doing? In the case of Pastor Sanders' church, it's doing the right stuff, and bravo for that. But what were we getting during the Bush years? The filter then looked very different.

I brought up Teen Challenge. This fundamentalist Christian group purports to help young people get over drug and alcohol addictions. Yet it discriminates on religious grounds in hiring and its program consists of an extended Bible study, prayer and other sectarian activities. A Teen Challenge leader once bragged about how they work with "completed Jews" – that is, Jews they have converted to fundamentalist Christianity.

In this case, the government's message – "Don't be an alcoholic or a drug addict" – is a good one. But the filter is all wrong. This important message is going through a filter that screws it all up. Teen Challenge is convinced that to get off drugs and alcohol, you first must get right with God by embracing its version of Christianity.

A program such as that should be funded with private dollars. Yet Teen Challenge has proven adept at tapping the public purse. It's maddening – and it underscores why groups like Americans United continue to have concerns about the faith-based initiative.

Pastor Sanders believes there are ways to reform the initiative to address the concerns I raised. He was adamant that we should not discard an entire system that he said can do good work.

I appreciated hearing his perspective – he has been on the front lines, after all – and I hope he's right. But, I must admit, I remain skeptical.