Obama Should Re-Think His Faith-Based Agenda

There's one wall that Barack wants to pull down that I think needs to be affirmatively left in place, or, to be more precise, reconstructed: the one between church and state.
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In his speech in Berlin, Barack Obama spoke of many walls that need tearing down. By the count of New York Times columnist David Brooks, Obama used the word "walls" 16 times, and in 11 of them, he was talking about walls coming down.

Now, I haven't talked with anyone, of any political persuasion, who's not in favor of those walls coming down, as unlikely as that may turn out to be.

But there's one wall that Barack wants to pull down that I think needs to be affirmatively left in place, or, to be more precise, reconstructed. That's the wall between church and state.

That wall was demolished by George W. Bush's White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. The Constitution notwithstanding, the Bush Administration installed faith-based programs in the White House and in a dozen government departments and agencies. The president was forced to use Executive Orders to get this program started, because Congress refused to allow prospective recipients of taxpayer funds to practice religious discrimination in hiring.

We all know how the Bush Administration cynically used its faith-based initiative to solidify its relationships with the Christian Right, a critical part of its base. Now, in an embarrassingly obvious pander to these so-called "values voters," Senator Obama has proposed his own version of a faith-based initiative. It's true that Obama's version contains major differences from Bush's program. As Jim Wallis points out, Obama's proposals contain necessary protections for religious liberty, pluralism, and constitutional safeguards.

But we are still stuck with the central (and unanswered) question: Why is the federal government involved at all? Doesn't the First Amendment to our Constitution make it clear enough that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."

I hate to sound like one of those "government should just get out of the way" conservatives, but I have to say that this seems to me to be one of those instances where federal intervention should be just plain unnecessary.

I want to be crystal clear. I am very much aware of the fantastic work done by many faith-based groups, both at home and abroad. These groups work at the grassroots. They work to help real people with real problems. They work on issues ranging from housing to poverty to homelessness to literacy to social justice to prison mentoring. Abroad, in my development work, I have over many years seen firsthand the totally professional work done in many disciplines by organizations like Catholic Charities -- without even the tiniest hint of proselytizing.

Yes, there have been some pretty outrageous breaches by a few religious organizations -- like the outfit that distributed King James Bibles to Muslims who had just lost everything to the Tsunami. Or the charity that used our tax dollars to run an "abstinence only" family planning program.

But that's not the point. By and large, the work of these groups has been exemplary, necessary, and often far less expensive and far more efficient than government efforts. The disastrous governmental response to Katrina would have been immeasurably worse without the tireless no-strings-attached help provided by unpaid volunteers from churches and church-related groups, large and small, from all over the world.

The point is that the major players in the faith-based community are awash in money and they ought to be encouraged to share it with their smaller and often struggling brothers and sisters.

I'm talking about the multi-billion-dollar faith-based rock-star empires amassed by people like John Hagee, Pat Robertson, Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, James Dobson, and many, many others.

Not that I would want this megaclergy to take on the role of grant-makers. Heaven forfend! That would surely lead to the total politicization of good works.

I am suggesting that, in the best spirit of peace on earth and goodwill toward men (and women), those with much should share it with those who have little save the desire to help their fellow human beings.

I am suggesting that the megaclergy commit to contributing in perpetuity part of their annual revenues to finance the kinds of projects now paid for by tax dollars. And I am suggesting that they should do that under the watchful aegis of some professional, ecumenical, credible, non-partisan, non-governmental organization, perhaps the Interfaith Council, or one of the great foundations such as MacArthur, Rockefeller, Pew, or Ford.

Let that outfit make its own rules without interference from donors. Or from the government. Let it develop its own priorities, its own criteria for awarding grants, its own monitoring and evaluation systems to measure effectiveness, its own plans to ensure lawful behavior, ethical conduct and real accountability.

It could start with only a few immutable principles: No proselytizing. No partisan politics. No ideological or scriptural agendas. Just help for those who need and deserve it.

As to the issue of employment discrimination, there shouldn't be any. In the unlikely event that some staunch right-to-lifer wants to work for Planned Parenthood, let him/her! And what could be more instructive than a practicing Muslim working for the Southern Baptist Convention! And my advice to orthodox Jews who are only comfortable working with other orthodox Jews, or Muslims with Muslims, or Catholics with Catholics: get over it!

At a practical level, I doubt that such a non-discriminatory employment policy would deter many faith-based groups from applying for grants. The reality might just be that people at polar opposites could actually learn something if they stopped talking past one another and worked together to accomplish important things.

It would be naïve to underestimate how hard it will be to get the Pat Robertsons of the world to sign on to this new kind of no-strings-attached philanthropy.

But that's exactly the guidance the Bible gives. Consider Deuteronomy 15:11: "There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land."

And if that unambiguous Biblical injunction happens to fall on deaf ears, perhaps there is a role for government after all. The bully pulpit of the White House gives the president a powerful weapon - which even the likes of Pat Robertson will find it difficult to ignore.

Whichever works, it will then be time for the government to, as they say, get out of the way.

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