The Mendacity of Hope: Rewriting the Story of the Faith-Based Initiative

Joseph Knippenberg

July 1, 2008

Barack Obama constantly tells us that he’s a different kind of politician, transcending the narrow partisan categories of the past and respectfully engaging those with whom he disagrees. We have to move beyond the old divisions, he insists, to fix what’s wrong with our country. Let’s forget about the past—especially his hyperpartisan voting record—and build a new future, one that he has from time to time characterized as the kingdom of heaven on earth.

Such claims might well persuade those who haven’t, don’t, and won’t pay close attention to policy and politics. But, as a careful examination of Obama’s latest foray into the Land of Promises demonstrates, the future he intends for us follows a script more narrowly partisan that the past he would have us repudiate.

Earlier this week, Obama told us how his faith-based initiative would be different from and better than George W. Bush’s.

[I]t has to be a real partnership – not a photo-op. That’s what it will be when I’m President. I’ll establish a new Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The new name will reflect a new commitment. This Council will not just be another name on the White House organization chart—it will be a critical part of my administration.

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.

With these principles as a guide, my Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships will strengthen faith-based groups by making sure they know the opportunities open to them to build on their good works. Too often, faith-based groups—especially smaller congregations and those that aren’t well connected—don’t know how to apply for federal dollars, or how to navigate a government website to see what grants are available, or how to comply with federal laws and regulations. We rely too much on conferences in Washington, instead of getting technical assistance to the people who need it on the ground. What this means is that what’s stopping many faith-based groups from helping struggling families is simply a lack of knowledge about how the system works.

Obama presents his proposal as an innovation and improvement: a higher profile for the faith-based office, more outreach (not just conferences in Washington), and adherence to allegedly “constitutional” principles.

Well, the last time I checked, the Bush Administration had a high-profile faith-based office, along with offices in a wide array of cabinet-level agencies and an ambitious schedule of outreach conferences, held all over the country, whose explicit purpose is and always has been to teach small faith-based groups how to apply for federal grants. What’s more, the principal purpose of the Compassion Capital Fund is to provide seed money, through larger, more accomplished intermediaries, for small faith- and community-based groups. In other words, aside from a different name, there’s nothing new about these elements of an Obama Administration’s faith-based initiative.

Well, he might respond, unlike the Bush Administration, there would be nothing partisan about his program. And I have a bridge to nowhere I’d like the government to fund.

Obama here restates a standard partisan critique of the Bush Administration’s faith-based initiative, a critique belied by the Adminstration’s tireless outreach, not to its supposed evangelical allies and supporters, but to inner-city congregations and faith-based organizations. Thus, for example, HUD’s faith-based and community office has partnered with big city mayors—hardly enthusiastic Republicans, for the most part—to bring together various constituencies involved in affordable housing efforts. And a casual survey of any of the numerous outreach conferences would find a demographic profile more characteristic of an NAACP meeting than of the prototypical Republican-leaning suburban evangelical megachurch.

To be sure, conversations begun in this modest way might have long-term political consequences. Empowering local communities to empower their own members might, over the long haul, weaken the demand for government programs and support for the party that most assiduously promotes them. (I, for one, wish that Republicans had taken this prospect more seriously.) But this is a far cry from a straightforward effort to reward well-connected friends, a far cry, in other words, from the caricature Democratic critics, echoed by Obama, present.

And then there are Obama’s allegedly constitutional principles. Once again, he for the most part echoes what the Bush Administration has attempted. But there is one big difference: he would dispense with the religious hiring rights that the current Administration has—rightly—defended against all comers…and that were affirmed in the original welfare reform bill signed into law by President Clinton, not to mention in the 1964 Civil Rights Act signed by that archconservative and proponent of discrimination Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Prior to the Bush Administration, in other words, there had been a bipartisan consensus that religious hiring rights were either required by the constitution or permitted by it. But the supposedly post-partisan Obama is singing from the hymnbook assembled by President Bush’s Democratic opponents, ignoring the weight of judicial precedent, not to mention any sort of nuance, in favor of a simplistic slogan. He ignores and indeed misrepresents the past to promote a fantastic (as in fantasy) constitutional vision whose roots are in an extremely simplistic and secularist reading of the First Amendment.

Notice the language Obama uses: taking religion into account when hiring is discrimination, which in our egalitarian culture is presumptively wrong. But is it really discrimination when a religious organization asks that its employees support its mission or affirm its statement of faith? I’d call that an exercise of religious freedom, which is what a unanimous Supreme Court held in the 1987 case Corporation of Presiding Bishop v. Amos.

Words are important, and the words Obama uses are calculated to put the faith-based groups he purports to embrace on the defensive. His many professions to the contrary notwithstanding, this isn’t a way of speaking about the issue that is particularly friendly to religion.

But, Obama could respond, we’re not talking about what a religious organization does on its own dime, but what it does with government money. I’ll concede this much: while the Constitution—erstwhile Professor Obama to the contrary notwithstanding—in no way requires it, the government is certainly entitled to attach such conditions to its grants and contracts. It could use its massive purchasing power, in effect, to standardize the character of social service delivery, turning every faith-based service organization that takes government money into something that resembles at least one portion of America—the government bureaucracy.

It goes almost without saying, of course, that, if Barack Obama had his way, the massive increases in government funding would increase the size and reach of these standardized groups, at the expense of those who wished to protect their distinctive vision and mission. He’s calling for “all hands on deck” to deal with our social problems, but only in ways that efface our religious pluralism.

George W. Bush defended the distinctiveness and diversity of a civil society constituted by a wide array of faith-based and community organizations. Not every group was for everyone, but there would surely be some group for everyone. For some, a “faith-drenched” setting would be most appealing and effective. For others, something more secular would be more appropriate. The genius of the Bush Administration’s faith- (and community-) based initiative is that it has encouraged this diversity to flourish.

To cooperate with George W. Bush’s government, a group hasn’t had to surrender its religious freedom. To cooperate with Barack Obama’s, it will.

Perhaps a truer label for Barack Obama’s program would be “faith-erased initiative.”

Joseph M. Knippenberg is an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. He is Professor of Politics at Oglethorpe University.