The Faith-Based Pitfall

A word of warning from Joseph Loconte on the seductive appeal of government funding for Church-based social ministries. Loconte, a senior research fellow at The King’s College in New York City, says that the faith-based initiative, as it’s being reformulated under the Obama administration, will likely be filtered though a Religious Left/Social Gospel ideology which holds that “compassion is defined by government budgets and delivered by government agents.” From my point of view, the faith-based initiative has always been problematical because it surrenders the autonomy of the Church, and its ancient ethic of freely given charity, to federal bureaucrats. The danger here is the secularization of social ministries and a dependence on federal funding. Just say no.

Witness the bizarre debate that erupted in 2001, recently revived by Obama, about the right of religious organizations to make faith commitment a criterion for employment. Earlier this week, the New York Times demanded that the president revoke this right — the freedom of association, that is, once considered intrinsic to democracy — for churches and charities that receive government support. The writers at the Times failed to mention that the 1964 Civil Rights Act (banning employment discrimination on the basis of race, sex, or religion) nevertheless upheld this freedom for faith-based organizations, allowing them to choose staff for religious reasons. Until recently, it did not occur to policymakers to accuse the venerable Jewish Social Service Agency of discrimination for hiring Jews, or to insist that the Salvation Army, an evangelical ministry, open its employment posts to atheists.

Opponents of Bush’s faith-based initiative, however, argue that government support changes the rules of the game: No group taking federal money should be exempt from anti-discrimination laws. Democratic leaders have repeatedly compared the hiring policies of religious charities to the racist bigotry of the Jim Crow South. As a lobbyist for Catholic Charities complained to me after a contentious congressional hearing: “I’ve never seen anything like this during my 20 years in Washington.”

Under the Obama administration, we may see more of this style of politics, not less. During the 2008 presidential race, Obama explicitly denounced the hiring exemption for religious charities. Earlier this month he ordered the Justice Department to write a new policy on the issue. Joshua DuBois, who heads the White House faith office, promises that the administration will “have a keener eye toward the separation of church and state.” A decision striking down the hiring rights of congregations and faith-based groups, however, would accomplish just the opposite: It would empower the state to force them to abandon their religious identity, the definition of secularization.

Read “The Bully and the Pulpit” by Joseph Loconte on NRO.

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