"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


obama and FBI's

Barack Obama is set to endorse the use of federal funds by faith-based social service agencies later today. Moreover, the candidate will also say that he supports, at least to some extent, allowing these agencies to hire and fire candidates on the basis of their religious belief.

In some respects, this decision isn't surprising. Obama comes out of the African-American church tradition, which has long been involved in providing social services to local communities. In following the argument that community groups often do a better job than government at providing social services, it makes sense that we would turn federal money over to these groups. Even if they're churches.

Aside from the questionable constitutionality of such arrangements (and believe me, there are questions), I've ruminated at length in the past as to why I think it's just a bad idea for churches and other houses of worship to accept federal money. When you take money from the government, you also have to accept its rules. And regulations. And regulators. Most churches I know would rather be free from the government's influence, but when you take government money, you invite the government into your church.

(The best way for a church to avoid such a situation is to set its social service activities up as a separate entity from the church itself. Even then, though, the church is allowing government into its mission, which I still find somewhat objectionable.)

In terms of allowing social service agencies to choose whom they employ, that also makes sense on some level. In their devotional ministry activities, churches don't have to hire people who don't profess belief that's in line with their church's doctrine, and it makes sense that they shouldn't have to do the same in social ministries. But the danger is that this is federal money, and I don't like the idea of allowing federally-funded groups to discriminate in their hiring practices.

Another objection I have to the faith-based initiatives program concerns who gets to participate. After all, it's easy to say that my church (and even your church :) should get federal funds to do good things. But what about churches with whose doctrine I vehemently disagree? I bet that the Mormons could run a darn good drug treatment program, but I don't want my tax dollars going to fund it. A college friend ended up being the person who made that choice in Texas for a couple of years. He assured me over and over that he would "just know" who the right groups to give money to were. That wasn't very comforting - one person's instincts are not enough to ensure fairness and equality.

It's extremely disappointing to me that Obama is choosing this stance, but I understand why it's politically expedient for him to do so. This is why I have yet to commit to a candidate in this presidential race. It's so important to find out what the candidates think about a broad variety of issues. Only then can I make a well-informed decision about the good, the bad, and the questionably constitutional.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Laura, good post. Believe me lots of folks are/were pretty worried about this speech. I read an earlier AP report that said he would support discrimination based on religion with federal funds. I have the text of the speech and it seems to directly contradict that report.

"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."

There are certainly other problems as you point out but maybe this particular one won't be as big a problem in the future.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008 12:07:00 PM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Well, that's good to hear. I didn't have time to read the speech before writing the post this a.m. But is "discrimination" the same as hiring only people from your religion? Is there a legal distinction, like in the BFOQ sense?

Tuesday, July 01, 2008 4:40:00 PM

Blogger MamasBoy said...

Mormons may not be Christians, but I would gladly have my tax dollars go to a drug program that they run. As long as the folks are getting off of drugs, the government should be agnostic as to the religion of the charity.


Tuesday, July 01, 2008 4:51:00 PM

Blogger CharlieMac said...

TIA and others,
Take it from someone who has been around the US government a long time. You(we) do not want to let that camel to get it's nose into the tent of any church. What follows is much bigger than promised in the beginning. Name one governmental program which has not grown larger than first stated.
Charlie Mac

Tuesday, July 01, 2008 8:16:00 PM


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