Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Obama's Faith-Based Plan

A lot of liberals [check out PZ Myers] are concerned about Obama's proposal to expand faith-based programs to reduce poverty, should he be elected president. A couple of years ago, I would have been, too. In fact, I opposed Bush's program at first. So maybe I am a hypocrite to support Obama's proposal (transcript here). [Emphasis added below.]

Obama's proposal for a $500 million-a-year Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships would also create 1 million slots for summer jobs and education programs.

"I'm not saying that faith-based groups are an alternative to government or secular nonprofits, and I'm not saying that they're somehow better at lifting people up," the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee said after touring the Eastside Community Ministry. "What I'm saying is that we all have to work together -- Christian and Jew, Hindu and Muslim, believer and nonbeliever alike -- to meet the challenges of the 21st century."

In Zanesville, Obama (Ill.) did not shy away from professing his beliefs.

"I didn't grow up in a particularly religious household," he said. "But my experience in Chicago showed me how faith and values could be an anchor in my life. And in time, I came to see my faith as being both a personal commitment to Christ and a commitment to my community, that while I could sit in church and pray all I want, I wouldn't be fulfilling God's will unless I went out and did the Lord's work."

George W. Bush first proposed federal assistance to religious organizations during his 2000 presidential campaign. But Bush's faith-based initiative has been mired in controversy. Its first director, John DiIulio, quit the White House and charged that the administration was stocked with "Mayberry Machiavellis" more interested in politics than policy.

Another program director, David Kuo, wrote a scathing tell-all book recounting how Bush's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives was used to advance Republican political objectives. Even most critics, however, concede that the program has increased the number of faith-based groups winning access to federal dollars and has lifted what in some cases were discriminatory policies against religious groups.

Obama aides, however, say the current program has not worked. Funding has not reached the levels Bush promised, and the program, Obama contends, has been too bureaucratic, including onerous training for groups who wish to apply.

It's not that I think Obama's plan is better than Bush's -- although I trust Obama to actually follow through with it much more than I trusted Bush, and rightfully so -- it's that the problem is so overwhelming (and is getting worse daily as the economy declines) that any effort is better than no effort. Further, I think those agencies already established in communities are best able assess need and distribute help -- and most of them are faith-based.

Jim Wallis has long been a supporter of faith-based programs.

The key to today's proposal is that it is based on public and faith-based partnership, and will not become another replacement for sound public policy. To truly be successful, this initiative must utilize the unique resources and identity of the faith community, while at the same time recognizing the indispensible role that government and public policy must play in tackling the root causes of poverty. Obama's proposals also contain necessary protections for religious liberty, pluralism, and constitutional safeguards.

This initiative has the potential to unite people across partisan lines. I truly hope that a recommitment to engaging the valuable role of faith-based organizations doesn't get mired in the endless political debates of the past while God's concerns for the weak and vulnerable get ignored.

Not suprisingly, Mark Ambinder, at The Atlantic, also supports the plan, or seems to.
Barack Obama unveiled his faith and government initiative today, and everyone's trying to sort out what exactly he wants to do and why. First, an Associated Press story suggested that Obama would allow faith-based groups to discriminate in hiring. (The AP walked back a bit.) Then, the Politico wrote that Obama planned to shutter Bush's executive office because he considered it a gimmick. Then, Wes Clark morning interviews -- was he asked to do them by the campaign? -- gummed up the works, again, and distracted the press corps. Here's what the Obama campaign says about faith-based initiatives. He's committed, they say., to all non-discrimination laws under Title VII and will see what he can do to reverse President Bush's executive order muddying the water on that front. Here's a key point: Obama would allow charities to impose faith requirements hiring for those programs that did not receive federal funding. Federally-funded programs would have to be discrimination-free but since discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is not prohibited, Obama wants to find a way to bring the state of the law back to where it was before President Bush's executive orders on religious hiring rights. So -- Obama's principle is clear, but how he'd put them into practice is not clear. Would Catholic charities be allowed to refuse to hire gay people for federally-funded programs? Obama thinks they shouldn't be able to, but it's not clear how or whether Obama would intervene to prevent them from doing so. It's also clear that Obama wants to expand the Bush initiative and rebrand it a bit. His new name for it is the Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

Some of my e-mailers today see a contradiction between Obama's support for gay rights, his own stark language on faith .....

"Now, I didn't grow up in a particularly religious household. But my experience in Chicago showed me how faith and values could be an anchor in my life. And in time, I came to see my faith as being both a personal commitment to Christ and a commitment to my community; that while I could sit in church and pray all I want, I wouldn't be fulfilling God's will unless I went out and did the Lord's work."

I don't really see where the contradiction is. Obama supports gay rights. And he's an evangelical. And he opposes federally-sanctioned gay marriage. And he supports an expanded government partnership with non-secular groups.

Obama is a man of faith -- and it seems he is willing to walk the talk a hell of a lot more than Bush ever did. Let's see if he follows through.

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