Flocking to the Faith
Obama’s faith-based plan courts GOP votes.
Thursday, August 14, 2008
In the old days politicians would slip preachers some hundreds under the table, and preachers would deliver the flock on Election Day. It was borderline illegal, but at least it left the Constitution alone. The same could not be said of the Bush administration’s faith-based initiative, a political bribe to the religious right that put a hole in the First Amendment big enough for Christ to walk through.
Given the dismal results of the initiative– millions wasted, many lawsuits, embarrassments like special Christians-only prison units– you would think getting rid of federal handouts to churches for social services would be one change we’d all be ready to believe in.
But no. As he announced earlier this summer, Barack Obama plans to open the spigot even wider, beginning with $500 million for summer classes for one million poor kids and presumably moving on to help for prisoners, addicts and others. Perhaps worn down by years of being bashed as elitists ignorant of the real America, many liberals and progressives seem prepared to go along. Difficult as it is to dissent from the feel-good community spirit in which Obama casts his proposals, this is a major failure of nerve.
EVERY DOLLAR THAT GOES TO A FAITH-BASED PROGRAM IS A DOLLAR THAT DOESN’T GO TO A CASH-STARVED PUBLIC SERVICE.
Obama may have given his initiative an inclusive-sounding name– the President’s Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships– and he may insist that with proper oversight government money can go to religious institutions without going to religious purposes, like proselytizing. He wouldn’t let churches discriminate in hiring for these programs or provide services only to their own (although the U.S. Supreme Court permits religious discrimination in church hiring, even for janitorial jobs). He says churches will have to obey their state’s antidiscrimination laws, which would mean that in 20 states churches that consider homosexuality an abomination would have to hire gays anyway. It would be hard to overestimate the amount of bureaucratic energy required to enforce these provisions. Besides, a grant for the prison-ministry-that-never-mentions-Jesus frees dollars for Sunday school or a new car for the reverend.
Although Obama stresses his determination to help “the smallest storefront churches and mosques” apply for funding, in real life the religious organizations with the bureaucratic know-how and political connections to go after the money will be the same as under Bush. Much of the funding, then, will still go to socially conservative white Christians. Indeed, that’s the point, as analysts acknowledge when they cite the measure as part of Obama’s attempt to win over this largely Republican demographic. He’s not going to win their votes by cutting them out in favor of inner-city mini-mosques. In fact, it doesn’t look like he’s going to do it at all; despite the God talk, Obama’s polling only 22 percent of the white evangelical vote.
Of course, winning votes isn’t the only reason Obama favors faith-based funding. He also says that our problems are “too big for government alone to solve” so “we need an all-hands-on-deck approach.” I’m all for volunteering, but tell me why we’ve given up on the idea of publicly providing people with services they need?
In other wealthy industrialized countries, children learn to read in school, not the church basement. Poor families get income supports that enable them to buy groceries; they don’t eat in soup kitchens. Why does Obama want to subsidize churches rather than beef up our frayed public realm? Every dollar that goes to a faith-based program is a dollar that doesn’t go to a cash-starved public service– to libraries, Head Start, community mental health clinics.
Obama is right that our problems are big, but that’s an argument against giving churches money. For instance, Obama mentioned the good work religious folk are doing to rebuild New Orleans. I don’t mean to take away from their dedication and accomplishments, but volunteers using vacations to rehab houses is not going to bring that city back to life. By exaggerating what religious organizations can accomplish, Obama is continuing the belittling of government, a major Bush theme, and for the same reason: Fully funding the kinds of programs needed to achieve the goals of the faith-based initiative would require a ton of money and a much deeper rethinking of our national priorities than Obama, or the Democratic Party, is willing to embrace.
Obama says he wants to ramp up church provision of social services because the churches know the people best. I’d question whether they even know their own parishioners best, let alone the larger community.
And what about the 16 percent found by a Pew survey to be atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular”? Are they any less capable of doing good on the government’s dime? The number of God-free Americans is growing. Another round of faith-based-funding scandals might be just what we need to put us right up there with the born-agains.