Terrance Heath

Walking in Faith, With Obama: Pt. 1

Filed By Terrance Heath | July 05, 2008 10:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Media, Politics
Tags: Barack Obama, faith-based initiative

I only glanced at the headline, because I was up to my ears in work. But what I read was enough to give me a sick feeling; the kind you get when you begin to wonder whether you've made a disastrous choice, or cast your lot with exactly the wrong person. (It's a feeling at least some Bush voters, circa 2004, should be familiar with.) The headline? "Obama to Expand Bush's Faith Based Programs."

Reaching out to religious voters, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama called for expanding President Bush's program steering federal social service dollars to religious groups and -- in a move sure to cause controversy -- supported some ability to hire and fire based on faith.

Obama unveiled his approach to getting religious charities more involved in government anti-poverty programs during a tour and remarks Tuesday at Eastside Community Ministry, which provides food, clothes, youth ministry and other services.

"The challenges we face today ... are simply too big for government to solve alone," Obama said.

Obama's announcement is part of a series of events leading up to Friday's Fourth of July holiday that are focused on American values.

Expand them? And here I'd been hoping -- but not praying -- that maybe getting the next Democrat in the White House would ashcan the whole idea.

No such luck.

Well, not exactly. In what's bound to be regular occurrence during a campaign in which Obama is staking out the middle of the road and courting the evangelical vote, he makes a statement that sounds to progressives like exactly what they don't want, and have been working to bring to an end these last 7.5 years, and shortly afterwards someone steps up to tell us what he really meant.

Thankfully, this AP feed was wrong, it's being corrected, and Barack Obama has not completely lost his mind. I obtained a copy of the speech Obama is going to deliver today, and he specifically outlines a faith-based agenda that in no way resembles Bush's approach. In fact, it's largely the opposite.

Now, make no mistake, as someone who used to teach constitutional law, I believe deeply in the separation of church and state, but I don't believe this partnership will endanger that idea -- so long as we follow a few basic principles. First, 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.

Obama has identified the pre-Bush safeguards and wants to strengthen them, not abandon them.

Well, let's hope so. Let's hope that, once in the White House, Obama has the backbone to stand up against what will surely be a bitter fight on the part of the religious right to hold on to what they've won from the Bush administration and a Democratic congress. If, so, there plenty of examples of just what he'd needs to be willing to change (and to convince his fellow Democrats of the needs not to cower in fear of voting for such changes.) I've written about a few of them.

He could start with something I covered back in December 2006: no taxpayer dollars for proselytizing.

Life was different in Unit E at the state prison outside Newton, Iowa.

The toilets and sinks -- white porcelain ones, like at home -- were in a separate bathroom with partitions for privacy. In many Iowa prisons, metal toilet-and-sink combinations squat beside the bunks, to be used without privacy, a few feet from cellmates.

The cells in Unit E had real wooden doors and doorknobs, with locks. More books and computers were available, and inmates were kept busy with classes, chores, music practice and discussions. There were occasional movies and events with live bands and real-world food, like pizza or sandwiches from Subway. Best of all, there were opportunities to see loved ones in an environment quieter and more intimate than the typical visiting rooms.

But the only way an inmate could qualify for this kinder mutation of prison life was to enter an intensely religious rehabilitation program and satisfy the evangelical Christians running it that he was making acceptable spiritual progress. The program -- which grew from a project started in 1997 at a Texas prison with the support of George W. Bush, who was governor at the time -- says on its Web site that it seeks "to 'cure' prisoners by identifying sin as the root of their problems" and showing inmates "how God can heal them permanently, if they turn from their sinful past."

...Government agencies have been repeatedly cited by judges and government auditors for not doing enough to guard against taxpayer-financed evangelism. But some constitutional lawyers say new federal rules may bar the government from imposing any special requirements for how faith-based programs are audited.

And, typically, the only penalty imposed when constitutional violations are detected is the cancellation of future financing -- with no requirement that money improperly used for religious purposes be repaid.

But in a move that some constitutional lawyers found surprising, Judge Pratt ordered the prison ministry in the Iowa case to repay more than $1.5 million in government money, saying the constitutional violations were serious and clearly foreseeable.

I added emphasis to one sentence above, because it reminded me of something I covered back in October 2006, and something else Obama might want to put on his list: religious organizations receiving federal dollars must not be exempt from federal, state and local laws.

An analysis by The New York Times of laws passed since 1989 shows that more than 200 special arrangements, protections or exemptions for religious groups or their adherents were tucked into Congressional legislation, covering topics ranging from pensions to immigration to land use. New breaks have also been provided by a host of pivotal court decisions at the state and federal level, and by numerous rule changes in almost every department and agency of the executive branch.

The special breaks amount to "a sort of religious affirmative action program," said John Witte Jr., director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at the Emory University law school.

Professor Witte added: "Separation of church and state was certainly part of American law when many of today's public opinion makers were in school. But separation of church and state is no longer the law of the land."

...As a result of these special breaks, religious organizations of all faiths stand in a position that American businesses -- and the thousands of nonprofit groups without that "religious" label -- can only envy. And the new breaks come at a time when many religious organizations are expanding into activities -- from day care centers to funeral homes, from ice cream parlors to fitness clubs, from bookstores to broadcasters -- that compete with these same businesses and nonprofit organizations.

Religious organizations are exempt from many federal, state and local laws and regulations covering social services, including addiction treatment centers and child care, like those in Alabama.

...Exemptions in the civil rights laws protect religious employers from all legal complaints about faith-based preferences in hiring. The courts have shielded them from many complaints about other forms of discrimination, whether based on race, nationality, age, gender, medical condition or sexual orientation. And most religious organizations have been exempted from federal laws meant to protect pensions and to provide unemployment benefits.

Governments have been as generous with tax breaks as with regulatory exemptions. Congress has imposed limits on the I.R.S.'s ability to audit churches, synagogues and other religious congregations. And beyond the federal income tax exemption they share with all nonprofit groups, houses of worship have long been granted an exemption from local property taxes in every state.

...These organizations and their leaders still rely on public services -- police and fire protection, street lights and storm drains, highway and bridge maintenance, food and drug inspections, national defense. But their tax exemptions shift the cost of providing those benefits onto other citizens. The total cost nationwide is not known, because no one keeps track.

And, in case there's any question, that means discrimination laws too.

On the other hand, if my employer is an evangelical Christian who has religious objections to homosexuality, she can fire me if she finds out that I'm gay. (Note: I don't have to "come out" at work. I merely have to be "found out.") It will be perfectly legal, and there won't be a damn thing I can do about it, unless I'm employed in Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, New Jersey, New Mexico, New Hampshire, Vermont, Washington State, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Maryland, Hawaii, Maine, the District of Columbia, Connecticut, or a city/municipality that has a non-discrimination statute that includes sexual orientation.

And even if I am employed in those states, I can still be fired if my employer has a religious objection to homosexuality and gets government funding under the Bush administration's faith-based initiative, which exempts religious organizations from state and local non-discrimination laws.

Eighteen current and former employees of the Salvation Army's social services arm have filed suit against the organization, accusing it of "imposing a religious veil over secular, publicly financed activities like caring for foster children and counseling young people with AIDS," the New York Times reported in late February. "I was harassed to the point where eventually I resigned," said Margaret Geissman, a former human resources manager who told the Times that her superior asked for the religions and sexual orientations of her staff. "As a Christian, I deeply resent the use of discriminatory employment practices in the name of Christianity."

... The Salvation Army is no stranger to controversy revolving around issues related Bush's faith-based initiative. Six months after the initiative's unveiling in late January 2001, it was revealed that top-level administration officials had been conducting secret meetings with the Salvation Army to enlist its political and financial support for the then-flagging project. According to the Washington Post's Dana Milbank, the meetings, which included Karl Rove, the president's chief political strategist, and Don Eberly, the then Deputy Director of the newly opened White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, had been going on for several months.

An internal Salvation Army document indicated that in exchange for its support, "which included plans for an Army-sponsored $100,000 public relations campaign," the charity would receive assurances that any bill passed by Congress would contain a provision allowing religious charities to sidestep state and local anti-discrimination measures barring discriminatory hiring practices on the basis of sexual orientation.

The irony there is that I could be fired for being gay, and as a taxpayer, continue to financially support the very same organization that fired me for being gay.

If a religious organization takes state money to deliver services the state would otherwise deliver, then it should be required to follow state laws. It should be required to abide by the laws of the state in which the services are delivered, too, since their work is supported by the taxpayers in that state. A religious organization should not be allowed to use taxpayer money, and then discriminate against some of the same taxpayers compelled to support its work, and taxpayers should not be compelled to fund organizations that would discriminate against them.

And, As I noted back in October 2006, fixing what's wrong with Bush's faith-based initiative will also mean rebuilding and reinforcing the wall between public service and religious services.

The herders of this remote mountain village know little about America, but have learned from those who run a US-funded aid program about the American God.

A Christian God.

The US government has given $10.9 million to Food for the Hungry, a faith-based development organization, to reach deep into the arid mountains of northern Kenya to provide training in hygiene, childhood illnesses, and clean water. The group has brought all that, and something else that increasingly accompanies US-funded aid programs: regular church service and prayer.

President Bush has almost doubled the percentage of US foreign-aid dollars going to faith-based groups such as Food for the Hungry, according to a Globe survey of government data. And in seeking to help such groups obtain more contracts, Bush has systematically eliminated or weakened rules designed to enforce the separation of church and state.

... The aim is both to abide by the Constitution's prohibition against a state religion and to ensure that aid recipients don't forgo assistance because they don't share the religion of the provider.

Since medical programs are aimed at the most serious illnesses -- AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis -- the decision whether to seek treatment can determine life or death.

But many of those restrictions were removed by Bush in a little-noticed series of executive orders -- a policy change that cleared the way for religious groups to obtain hundreds of millions of dollars in additional government funding. It also helped change the message American aid workers bring to many corners of the world, from emphasizing religious neutrality to touting the healing powers of the Christian God.

Bush's orders altered the longstanding practice that groups preach religion in one space and run government programs in another. The administration said religious organizations can conduct services in the same space as they hand out government aid, so long as the services don't take place while the aid is being delivered. But the rule allows groups to schedule prayers immediately before or after dispensing taxpayer-funded aid.

Bush's orders also reversed longstanding rules forbidding the use of government funds to pay for employees who are required to take an oath to one religion. In addition, the president's orders allowed faith-based groups to keep religious symbols in places where they distribute taxpayer-funded aid.

And in implementing the president's orders, the administration rejected efforts to require groups to inform beneficiaries that they don't have to attend religious services to get the help they need. Instead of a requirement, groups are merely encouraged to make clear to recipients that they don't have to participate in religious activities.

As a general rule, "self-regulation" in the form of "encouraging" groups to make it clear that receiving services is not contingent upon enduring religious services is deregulation, and deregulation is the same as lawlessness -- it assumes that people will follow the law when there is in fact no law to follow. You can imagine how that turns out.

Actually, we don't have to imagine. We know.

And Kuo makes it plain that the little money that was allocated to the faith-based initiative went almost exclusively to evangelical Christian groups. To make that point, he quotes one of the people who reviewed applications, without noticing that she wears the same kind of blinders he wore then and still wears throughout the book.

Someone mentioned that I used to work at the White House in the faith-based office. A woman piped up and said, "Really? Wow, I was on the peer-review panel for the first Compassion Capital Fund." I asked her how she liked it and she said it was fun. She talked about how the government employees gave them grant review instructions -- look at everything objectively against a discreet list of requirements and score accordingly. "But," she said with a giggle, "when I saw one of those non-Christian groups in the set I was reviewing. I just stopped looking at them and gave them a zero."

At first I laughed. A funny joke. Not so much. She was proud and giggling and didn't get that there was a problem with that. I asked if she knew others who'd done the same. "Oh sure, a lot of us did." She must have seen my surprise. "Was there a problem with that?"

... This was a smart, accomplished Christian woman. She got it immediately. But what she had done comported with her understanding of what the faith initiative was supposed to do -- help Christian groups -- and with her faith. She wanted people to know Jesus.

And Kuo's dewy gaze at George W. Bush misses the same set of blinders.

Ultimately, George Bush wanted souls. In a remarkable reference in a Los Angeles speech in March 2004, he discussed what faith-based groups would be able to do with more money. He passionately exclaimed, "There's more souls to be saved." That was what "faith-based" was about for him. It is why, when he talked about faith-based groups with no notes, he always talked about the power of those groups to change lives "from the inside out." It was his own story.

Leaving aside whether or not Bush is more of a "dry drunk" than a recovering alcoholic, and whether he wanted votes at least as much as he wanted souls (if not more) it's clear that he and the "peer-review panelist" wear the same blinders Kuo wears and miss the same point he comes close to reaching in the book, but ultimately doesn't get either: that the government should not be in the business of "saving souls" or helping people to "know Jesus," nor should it pay anyone else to do so.

The inherent danger in that is evidenced in the kind of discrimination Kuo writes about, that was an ingrained part of the thinking of the most ardent supporters of the initiative. Combined with the lack of oversight (which perhaps has its origin in what Kuo describes as evangelical Christians willingness to give the Bush administration the benefit of the doubt even with it seemed to ignore or short change their issues) creates situations like the one I noted before, where an organization like the Salvation Army gets nearly all of its budget from the government, and then uses it to purge Jews and homosexuals from its staff; Jewish and homosexual taxpayers, that is, whose taxes now supply the organization's budget. (Not to mention Buddhist, Muslim, and non-religious taxpayers who would probably also be out of a job, courtesy of their tax dollars.)

It's a danger only enhanced by the Bush administration's efforts to weaken rules that were intended to protect the separation of church and state. The danger becomes even more apparent when you consider that the "soul-saving" mission is combined with belief that it's an it is an "'error' to judge federally-funded social service programs by the effectiveness of the services they provide, instead of judging them by religious 'long-term ends'," because it creates an atmosphere where effectiveness doesn't matter in a situation where lives are literally at stake.

Back when I actually had time to write, I posted that review of David Kuo's book, which (though I was underwhelmed with Kuo in general) underscored the big problem with a faith-based initiative of the kind Bush implemented, and which I guess Obama would try to reform.

It's hard to do it right, precisely because of human fallibility where faith is concerned. Recent polls aside, most "true believers" -- the kind who would and have become part of Bush's initiative -- are going to run into a bit of a stumbling block when it comes to complying with safeguards we used to have, that have been all-but-obliterated in the Bush era.

Even if those safeguards are restored, combining religion and government funding leaves other possibilities in play.

"I find it a tad worrisome, to be perfectly honest," said Randall Balmer, professor of religious history at Columbia University. While it could pass muster under the Constitution, he said, any proposal combining religion and federal money carries "the potential for a lot of mischief."

In a statement yesterday, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, a Baptist minister and president of the Interfaith Alliance, said Bush's faith-based initiative "has been a colossal failure." He said Obama's plan - which, like Bush's, allows religious organizations to receive money directly from the government rather than through a separate nonprofit entity - needs "much stronger safeguards" to guarantee separation of church and state and to keep religious organizations from hiring only people of the same beliefs.

It needs much more than that, actually. It needs one very simple, very basic reform: go back to the way things were before, when religious organizations could already receive federal dollars.

Q: Without "charitable choice" can religiously-affiliated organizations continue to receive government support?

A. Prior to 1996, religiously-affiliated organizations (Jewish Federations, Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services etc.) could receive government money to administer social programs, but pervasively sectarian (churches, synagogues, mosques) institutions could not. Religiously-affiliated organizations, while affiliated with religious denominations, were run with adequate safeguards: as separate non-profit organizations that provided needed services without infusing a religious component.

Thus, with appropriate safeguards, many religiously-affiliated organizations that deliver social services, such as Catholic Charities and Jewish Family Services, can (and should) continue to receive government support.

And the adequate safeguards are the same ones we had before, too. But these would be a good start.

  • No program beneficiary is subjected to unwanted and unconstitutional proselytizing when he or she receives government-funded social services;
  • Taxpayer money does not fund religious discrimination in the hiring and firing of people who will deliver the services;
  • Secular alternatives to religiously provided services are readily available, and that those who prefer secular alternatives are made aware of them and have realistic and convenient access to them;
  • Proper firewalls between government-funded services and the core religious activities of a religious organization are developed, so that taxpayer dollars are not channeled into other religious activities of sectarian organizations (as a practical matter, this can best be implemented through religious organizations' establishment of a separate corporate structure which would distinguish a sectarian religious entity from its government-funded social welfare organization);
  • Program recipients comply with all requirements and restrictions imposed upon all government-funded activity by the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution; and
  • Extremist, terrorist or hatemongering groups are not able to receive government money.

While we're at it, the folks you have delivering services -- just as with secular organizations seeking government funding to deliver the same services -- they'd better be professionally trained and, if necessary, licensed.

But under the Bush-Ashcroft proposals, tax money flows directly to places of worship. Churches may discriminate in hiring on the basis of religious beliefs. People clad in clerical garb may deliver services in locations laden with religious symbols. Churches may infuse tax-supported aid with religious indoctrination.

Texas provides examples of how this works in practice. In 1997, the state exempted religious drug and alcohol programs from licensing requirements. A publicly supported drug treatment program runs out of a church. Its counselors are ministers, with no professional training in substance abuse or addiction medicine. Its diagnosis: drug abuse is not a disease, it's a sin. Thus, the state-supported therapy: prayer and Bible reading.

Theoretically, a client may choose a secular alternative treatment facility with a professional staff-but he'd have to figure out that he has a right to request an alternative; he'd have to ask for it; and, in many rural areas, he'd have to travel miles to get there. Is this possible for an indigent drug addict?

Bush seeks to replicate this model throughout the country. Public funds will be systematically diverted from experienced professionals to religious groups without supervision or accountability.

Many of those are, of course, the very ones that some religious organizations successfully did away with under the Bush administration. While it's doubtful that they'd quietly accept the restoration of those safeguards, there is another alternative; one they had all along, just as they had the right to compete for government funding before: private funding.

Privately funded religious organizations have long enjoyed similar exemptions from federal laws; and they have practiced religious discrimination in employment, because, as private groups, they enjoy rights to associational and religious freedom under the First Amendment. But private associations must, of course, give up private associational rights when they accept government support and become, in part, de facto public entities--as the Boy Scouts of America is learning. Relying on its status as a private group, the BSA recently won a Supreme Court case affirming its First Amendment right to discriminate against gay people; but it is losing some state support, because it openly violates various antidiscrimination laws. Advocates of charitable choice want sectarian organizations to have what the BSA is losing: the benefits of public funds without the responsibility to obey public laws. They want only to obey God's law--which is fair enough, so long as they don't depend on Caesar's money.

One can hardly blame them. Acquiring private funding on the same level as the amount of government dollars available would require them to compete successfully in the market place of ideas, and convince enough private funders of their effectiveness along with their sincerity. That might also mean being accountable to private donors, even the most faithful of whom would probably demand results at some point, and withdraw their funding if they don't get it. That means constantly working to deliver the most effective service possible, to as many people as possible, and keeping as many private donors as possible happy enough that they will donate as much funding as possible.

That's a lot of work. It's easier to get a government check, especially if it comes with no strings attached. Free money? With no restrictions? And no accountability? You can hardly blame them for wanting it, and trying hard to get it.

And they got it too. It's naive to think they will really, willingly give it up and go back to the way things were before (however sensible things were before). The payoff is too big. There's a payoff for Obama, too, in courting religious voters which, during the election, seems to make the risk of "potential mischief" worthwhile if it helps him win. However, it comes with strings attached.

"McCain won't have any trouble convincing evangelicals he's on their side," Warren Smith, the editor of Evangelical Press News Service, says. "The only reason they're holding back their support is to see how much they can get out of him."

For the Obama campaign, there may be little to lose by plumping for conservative Christian votes. As Smith remarked to me, "If Obama can't make any inroads with these [evangelical] folks, at least he can say he tried, which allows him to at least create the illusion of new politics. If he can do some good with them, well, great."

With little to lose and everything to gain, Obama has lifted high the cross. But are there invisible strings attached? In victory, his newfound God squad may also want to see how much faith-based benefit they might get out of him. Already, Obama has pledged to reauthorize Bush's faith-based initiative through his new Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. "It will be a critical part of my Administration," he has vowed. But Obama should know by now that pastors can have their own agendas, too.

And, he may have to pay attention to those agendas, if he wins office and wants their help getting re-elected. It's highly doubtful that he'll keep their support if he brings back the regulations they fought so hard to tear down.

But that's exactly what he, or whoever ends up in the White House, should do. Nix the "faith-based initiative" and return to the same standards we had before.

Crossposted from The Republic of T.


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And thus is the great liberal fear - that the progressive Senator from Illinois will move to the center to appease the right. While I'd like to say this is a shot over the bow, for me it's a well aimed blow square in the center of the boat.

Allan Brauer | July 5, 2008 12:30 PM

What many fail to appreciate in Obama's launch of his general election campaign is this:

Obama is deftly, and in a principled manner, carefully disarming each and every one of the weapons in the Republican/Rove arsenal, so that, when they pull out their bazookas and pull the trigger, the weapons will fizzle and sputter and blow up in their Republican faces like the Acme products Wile E. Coyote deployed in his battles with the Road Runner.

Under Obama, this reconstituted program will award grants to faith-based AND non-faith-based community service providers, and "faith" in an Obama administration will include ALL faiths, not just conservative evangelical Christians.

It's entirely consistent with Obama's positions, his background in community organizing which relied heavily on building bridges with churches, and the positions of both Bill Clinton and Al Gore, who also endorsed the faith-based initiatives concept.