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 himself to walk through. Given the dismal results of the initiative--millions wasted, many lawsuits, embarrassments like special Christians-only prison units and Faith Works, which aspired to bring "homeless addicts to Christ"-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 half a billion dollars for summer classes for 1 million poor kids and presumably moving on to help for prisoners, addicts and other unfortunates. 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--who wants to be the curmudgeon while people are in obvious need?--this is a major failure of nerve.
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 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 twenty 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, money is fungible--a grant for the prison-ministry-that-never-mentions-Jesus frees up that many 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, which is exactly what the notoriously religiously tone-deaf John Kerry got in 2004.
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 again why we've given up on the idea of publicly providing people with the 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 their own groceries; they don't have to 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 and so on.
Obama is right that our problems are very big--but that's an argument against giving money to churches. 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 their 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 that was such a major theme of the Bush Administration, and for the same reason: fully funding the kinds of programs needed to achieve the goals of the faith-based initiative--"ending poverty," for example--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.
About that pesky separation of church and state. 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--quick, Pastor, how many gays are in your choir? how many women in the pews have had those abortions you sermonize against?--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? You'd never know it, but the number of God-free Americans--already more than Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Mormons, all the black churches, Jews and Muslims put together--is growing. In fact, another round of faith-based-funding scandals might be just what we need to put us right up there with the born-agains.
By Katha Pollitt
Reprinted with permission from The Nation