Many commentaries on President Obama’s new policy for faith-based initiatives seem to flounder on the same issue: How can something faith-based honor the separation of Church and State? The answer, I think, comes from the concept of the Natural Law.
Natural Law Theory states that different people may arrive at the same conclusion about what is right and wrong. As long as persons use reason, it is argued, they will eventually agree on basic social issues. Is murder ever justified? Are nuclear weapons permissible? Is there a right to organize in a labor union? Are there moral limits to economic practices like charging interest on loans? Catholic optimists believe that faith and reason don’t clash on such major issues. While believers use BOTH faith and reason, an open mind and sincere heart using logic alone will arrive at similar conclusions. The underlying concept is that the “laws of nature and nature’s God” are one and the same.
Since I entered academia, I have discovered that the principle of Natural Law underlies a great deal of social thinking, and not just for Catholics. The Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776 may have come from the hand of free thinking Deist Thomas Jefferson, but its intellectual principles for revolution can be traced directly to the Spanish Jesuit, Juan de Mariana (1536-1624). Sociologists with a sweet spot for Liberal Protestantism like Robert Bellah also buy into the basic Natural Law premise. People of faith may be MOTIVATED by religion, he says, but such belief leads them to ACT reasonably and in concert with other citizens in the public square. Bellah is nettled by those who proclaim faith as antagonistic to reason, as if being logical and cooperative in public matters constituted a weakened faith.
Of course, there are believers who stretch the Natural Law principle too far. I can’t agree with the Catholic bishops who have stated that biology has established that human life begins with a fertilized ovum. (Fertility doctors consider implantation in the womb the moment of conception.) Much less can I see Intelligent Design as a reasonable argument against evolution or a biblical quote from the Book of Jeremiah (Jer. 1:5) as “proof” that abortion is morally wrong. If an issue is contentious, that alone is evidence of the limits of Natural Law. It agrees with faith most of the time, but never always.
However, I also reject the argument from secularists that separation of Church and State means that the government must promote atheism. We can keep government secular and still support plans like Obama’s faith-based initiative or turning Catholic schools into charter schools. As citizens, people of faith have the same rights as non-believers. If religion is focused upon righteous motivation for doing good, it does not intrude upon the non-denominational aspects of the United States’ legal tradition. Nothing worthwhile is easy, and debate doesn’t always destroy cooperation between believers and non-believers. I sometimes think there are more conflicts between Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill than between Methodists and Catholics or Episcopalians and Socialists in working for social justice.
President Obama’s new idea for faith-based initiatives seems to strike a right balance. Funds go to NEIGHBORHOODS that have created a coalition of churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, etc. The focus is on helping people with human services that benefit the common good. The social capital of religious institutions, their traditions of volunteerism and altruistic generosity provide bigger “bang-for-the-buck” than many government bureaucracies. Why exclude such citizens from the social project? Setting conditions for funding can help insure that the delivery of services meets basic professional standards. In this way, faith is wed to citizenship in ways beneficial to both. Moreover, by making grants to a coalition rather than to a single church, the ecumenical partners become guardians over the process that taxpayers’ dollars are not used to fatten one congregation’s membership lists. Obama’s principle also settles most hiring decisions equitably.
At a moment with revolutionary potential in American history such as began on January 20, 2009, it’s appropriate to appeal again to the “laws of nature and nature’s God.” “Faith-based” is a solution.