By David Waters
Add government funding of faith-based programs to the list of Obama administration deficiencies identified by disaffected parties on the left and the right.
In recent days, religious leaders ranging from liberal Rev. Barry Lynn (Americans United for Separation of Church and State) to conservative Rev. Frank Page (Southern Baptist Convention) have expressed deep disappointment with the work of Obama’s Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, which was created to reform President George W. Bush’s White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.
If both religious progressives and conservatives are finding fault with Obama’s faith-based inertia, the administration’s faith-based initiative doesn’t have a prayer.
Last week on Huffington Post, Lynn noted that Obama congratulated himself at the National Prayer Breakfast for having “turned the faith-based initiative around.” Yes, but only if by turning he meant 360 degrees, Lynn noted.
“The core of Obama’s faith-based initiative looks pretty much identical to the deeply problematic one created by President George W. Bush,” Lynn wrote. “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. It’s disheartening.”
Meanwhile, over on the right side of the congregation, former Southern Baptist Convention president Page, one of 25 members of Obama’s faith-based advisory council, finds himself losing heart as well. The council was formed a year ago this month to advise the president on how the administration can assist faith-based efforts to address poverty, interfaith dialogue, fatherhood and climate change (as well as reforming the faith-based office).
The issues discussed “were carefully chose(n) to avoid debate and arguments,” Page told Post reporters Michelle Boorstein and William Wan. “When the president launched his office, he talked about abortion reduction as one of his four priorities. That was very quickly taken off the table as something we’d deal with.”
Americans United and 24 other groups, including the Interfaith Alliance and the Union of Reform Judaism, sent Obama a letter Friday asking him to fix the faith-based initiative, “to prevent government-funded religious discrimination and protect social service beneficiaries from unwelcome proselytizing.”
There doesn’t appear to be any mobilizing of protesters on the right, but that likely won’t happen unless the administration ignores Bush-era rules that let publicly funded faith-based groups discriminate in hiring on religious grounds.
The U.S. Conference on Catholic Bishops, for example, one of the largest faith-based recipients of government funds, is on record as opposing efforts to prohibit discrimination in hiring or delivery of services. “Government bodies should not require Catholic institutions to compromise their moral convictions to participate in government health or human service programs.”
(This was a big issue late last year when the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington threatened to pull out of its social service contracts if the District approved gay marriage.)
The Obama administration’s efforts to build a multifaith consensus on government funding of faith-based social services is commendable, but ultimately doomed. Conservative religious groups will never compromise on the hiring issue, and progressive religious groups will never be satisfied with the Bush-era status quo.
The real problem with the faith-based initiative — under Bush and Obama — is that it’s a fundamentally flawed concept. The federal government and U.S. religious groups serve two different masters. The government serves taxpayers, religious groups serve God. When it comes to distributing and overseeing the use of federal tax dollars, government overrules God.
If churches and other faith-based groups are going to apply for and accept government funding, shouldn’t they have to abide by those rules?
If not, they can decide to help people the old-fashioned way — because God calls them to, not because government pays them to.
Update: Religion News Service reports that Obama’s 25-member council advising the White House on faith-based issues voted 13-12 that the government should
require houses of worship to form separate corporations in order to receive direct federal funding for social services.
When asked whether the government should permit charities to offer social services in rooms containing religious art, symbols, messages or scripture, 16 said yes, two said no, and seven said they should be permitted if no other space is available.