Defending Obama’s “Faith-Based” Funding Changes: Special Rules for the Religious?

July 7, 2008

I’m by and large indifferent to Obama’s promised expansion of “faith-based” funding, which like most government programs that target certain groups, is likely to boil down to patronage, just as it did in the Bush administration. Maybe he’ll do better, enforce some actual standards of quality and non-partisanship. In fact, given the outright disdainful incompetent way many of these programs have been run, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could do as badly. But politics has a certain gravity, not unlike economic markets, that quickly washes away one’s original intentions when it comes time to make policy. I can’t really celebrate or decry Obama on this stuff.

There are, however, some broader important church/state principles here, and a lot of people making arguments that I just don’t think hold water.

Most prominently, there’s the religious folks who are horrified that Obama is suggesting that they might have to play by the same rules as everyone else who receives government grants. The NYTimes calls it the “six little words” that threaten to throw a wrench into his overture to religious groups

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Obama’s Faith Based Mistake

July 1, 2008

An Obama presidency, apparently, will mean more “faith-based” programs funded by the government. Starting life as Bill Clinton’s “Charitable Choice” and then becoming yet another a clumsy partisan bludgeon in the Bush administration under the name of his “faith-based initiatives,” the drive to drive more government money into the hands of religious groups has always had a questionable track record. Religious groups themselves have been wary of government strings attached, and a whole lot of questionable programs with dubious efficacy have ended up with oodles of handouts (and the payouts have often been suspiciously partisan).

So color me somewhat skeptical that an Obama-run version is going to be any better. I’m mostly with Barry Lynn: shut the program down entirely. Go back to simply funding non-profits to provide services, and let churches figure out how to organize as non-profit charities, including all the same regulations and responsibilities, if they want any moola. Let the rules be the same for everyone, instead of trying to give religious groups special treatment.

On the other hand, Obama does get the above issue mostly right where Bush got it wrong:

And while Bush supports allowing all religious groups to make any employment decisions based on faith, Obama proposes allowing religious institutions to hire and fire based on religion only in the non-taxpayer-funded portions of their activities — consistent with current federal, state and local laws. “That makes perfect sense,” he said.

It does. The issue is simple: when the government contracts out some service to a private organization, what they’re paying for is the service, not the promotion of someone else’s ideology. For many religious organizations, this is potentially a problem: they don’t want the taking of some government money to force them to change all of their programs and services and ideals. The solution is simply to keep a separate set of books: to separate out the charitable service from the religious part.

Catholic charities have, in fact, functioned like this for decades, mostly without any problems at all. The modern Catholic attitude here has always been the most laudable: help people first. Not as a means promote their religion, but because their religion calls us to do it. And if people are inspired by that, want to understand what would motivate such charity, well great.

Unfortunately, too many evangelical organizations basically see the promotion of their ideology itself as the primary act of charity in many of these endeavors. Sure, we’d like to get you off drugs. But it’s getting you hooked on Jesus that will really help you. And that’s where we run into problems… and get lame whining like this:

That’s because telling a small organization to keep employees hired with federal funds separate from others “is unmanageable — and besides those folks want to hire people who share their vision and mission,” Towey said.

Sorry, but that’s just pathetic. If you care more about your own vision and ideology than providing the charity or service you’re supposed to be providing, that’s fine. But in that case, you don’t have the right to expect other taxpayers’ money to pay for your proselytizing, or to get a gay taxpayer’s money for your program only to turn around and discriminate against the person who’s unwillingly paying for it.