Monday, July 14, 2008

Obama's Vision of the Faith-Based Initiative Prefers "Progressive" Religion

Senator Barack Obama has indicated that he would not abolish the various "offices" and "task forces" within the executive branch dedicated to faith-based and community initiatives if he is elected president.

However, he also indicated that he would change the rules governing the partnerships between faith-based organizations and government. Most significantly, he would curtail the freedom of such religious groups to (1) preserve their religious character by drawing their personnel from among those who voluntarily share their religious commitments; and (2) engage in religious activities.

Some observers declared (incorrectly, in my view) that Sen. Obama's willingness to maintain the faith-based initiative at all was some sort of "Sister Souljah moment" in which he distanced himself from the secular left. These observers seemed surprised that a liberal Democrat was willing to allow any religious groups to participate in government-funded social service programs.

As I see it, and with all due respect, these observers misunderstand the mainstream liberal-left position on church-state relations. Very few on the left categorically oppose the participation of any religious group in a government-funded social service or education program. Instead, they favor the inclusion of a certain kind of religious group and the exclusion of another kind. More specifically, they tend to favor the inclusion of groups that do not integrate religion into their operations and do not draw their personnel from among co-religionists. (In constitutional jargon, such groups are "religiously affiliated.") On the other hand, under the liberal-left view of church-state relations, groups that do the opposite (i.e., integrate religion in their operations and engage in faith-based hiring) are generally ineligible. (Such groups are deemed "pervasively sectarian.") [All this is concededly a bit of an oversimplication, but the general thrust is accurate.]

Those who are surprised that Sen. Obama is willing to fund some religious groups are apparently unaware that the principal divide in American religion is not between religion and irreligion, but between "progressive" religion and "orthodox" religion. [Sociologist James Davison Hunter explores this reality in his indispensable book Culture Wars.] According to Hunter's thesis, evangelical Protestants have more in common with orthodox Jews than with liberal Protestants when it comes to cultural questions. [My own experience confirms this: the Center (part of the theologically orthodox Christian Legal Society) is more likely to be on an amicus brief with the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations than it is with the liberal United Church of Christ.]

"Progressive" religious organizations are less likely than "orthodox" ones to integrate religion into their operations or use religious criteria in choosing personnel. Therefore, progressive groups would be far freer than orthodox ones to participate in social service programs under Sen. Obama's proposed system. In other words, to put it bluntly, Sen. Obama would fund his cultural and religious friends while de-funding those with whom he tends to disagree.

The First Amendment (among other things) forbids government from preferring one religion over another. A set of rules that systematically prefer "progressive" religion over "orthodox" religion, in my opinion, is inconsistent with this fundamental First Amendment principle.