'Faith-Based' Flare Up: Government Aid to Social Service Ministries Becomes Hot Topic in Presidential Campaign

By Boston, Rob | Church & State, September 2008 | Go to article overview

'Faith-Based' Flare Up: Government Aid to Social Service Ministries Becomes Hot Topic in Presidential Campaign


Boston, Rob, Church & State


Soaring energy prices, an uncertain economy and the ongoing war in Iraq have dominated the 2008 presidential campaign. But for a few days this summer, a controversial church-state issue--the "faith-based" initiative--managed to grab the national spotlight.

Democratic presidential hopeful U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) put the focus on the initiative when he gave a major address in Zanesville, Ohio, July 1 during which he vowed to reform, re-name and expand the faith-based office. Shortly after that, Republican candidate U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was quick to point out that he, too, supports faith-based initiatives.

Advocates of church-state separation were pleased to see an important church-state issue on the national stage but were disappointed by the candidates' stands.

When President George W. Bush took office in January of 2001, the first domestic program he announced was a faith-based initiative that, Bush said, would mobilize America's religious communities to fight social ills like drug addiction, homelessness and poverty. He set up a special White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives to lead the charge.

Nearly eight years have passed, and critics say the initiative has been a disaster. It was never formally approved by Congress, but Bush has used executive orders and regulatory changes to move it forward. Money has been funneled to the president's fundamentalist political allies, and the office has been used to boost Republican House and Senate candidates. Objective studies have failed to find evidence that the faith-based approach works any better than governmental or private secular programs.

In light of that track record, church-state separationists hoped the initiative would be shut down once a new president takes over in January of 2009. It doesn't look as though that will be happening. In fact, the initiative may even be expanded.

Obama's announcement attracted a lot of attention, in part because it was the candidate's first major speech on the issue. The Illinois senator, who has been aggressively courting religious voters, told the Ohio crowd that the country needs "all hands on deck" to combat social ills.

"Now, I know there are some who bristle at the notion that faith has a place in the public square," Obama said. "But the fact is, leaders in both parties have recognized the value of a partnership between the White House and faith-based groups...."

Obama charged that under Bush, "[T]he office never fulfilled its promise. Support for social services to the poor and the needy have been consistently underfunded. Rather than promoting the cause of all faith-based organizations, former officials in the office have described how it was used to promote partisan interests. As a result, the smaller congregations and community groups that were supposed to be empowered ended up getting short-changed."

If elected, Obama said he will give the project a new name: the Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Obama vowed to prohibit proselytizing in taxpayer-funded programs and bar religious groups that take public money from hiring and firing on the basis of religion reforms that could amount to a major break with the Bush approach.

"Now, make no mistake," Obama said, "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," he continued, "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."

At the same time, Obama promised to significantly extend the initiative's reach. …

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