Spring 2009, Vol. 12, No. 1

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Spiritual Politics blog

Articles in this issue:

Table of Contents

From the Editor:
Our Excellent ARIS Adventure

The Madoff Disgrace

Keeping the Faith-Based

Dolan Does Gotham

No Friends on the Right

A Buddhist Bishop in the UP

Breaking Up Is Hard to Adjudicate

Praise God and Pass the Diapers

Haggard Agonistes


New books


Keeping the Faith-Based
Dennis R. Hoover

In a January 30, 2008 column in the Washington Post, Michael Gerson bemoaned the fact that “compassionate conservatism” seemed to be a “cause without a constituency.”

“The conservative movement views it as a heresy,” concluded Gerson, “while liberals and Democrats shun it because of its association with George W. Bush.” Yet the following July, a key policy that Bush had successfully branded as compassionate conservative—the faith-based initiative—found an important new constituent: Barack Obama.

At a July 1 campaign appearance in Zanesville, Ohio (a conservative region of what then appeared to be a critically important swing state), Obama pledged to continue the faith-based initiative:

“We need all hands on deck. I’m not saying faith-based groups are an alternative to government and secular nonprofits. And I’m not saying they’re somehow better at lifting people up. What I’m saying is that we all have to work together—Christian and Jew, Hindu and Muslim, believer and non-believer alike—to meet the challenges of the 21st century.”

Candidate Obama did, however, try to distinguish his own faith-based plan from that of the sitting president. He charged that Bush’s White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives never fulfilled its promise, in part because the Bush administration’s overall spending on social services was insufficient, and in part because the office had been politicized. To bolster the latter charge, Obama noted that “former officials in the Office have described how it was used to promote partisan interests”—a reference to former White House official David Kuo’s 2006 exposé, Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction.

Obama also indicated that he would approach the issue of religious hiring rights very differently than had President Bush. Whereas Bush had insisted on the right of faith-based organizations that accept government funds for social service programs to use religion as a criterion in hiring, Obama declared that “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.”

Obama’s Zanesville embrace of the faith-based initiative was not a major media event. His campaign had already established a pattern of energetic (by Democratic Party standards) outreach to faith-based communities in general, and to center-leaning evangelicals in particular. So perhaps journalists thought the novelty value was low.

Obama also had ample precedent for his remarks. Democratic presidential candidates Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Hilary Clinton had all claimed centrist cred by rhetorically aligning themselves with faith-based social service organizations.

The aspect of the Zanesville speech that did attract some attention was the issue of hiring rights. Some interpreted Obama’s speech as a move to the center despite the bright line he said he wanted to draw on hiring.

“Prior to today, the danger was that Democrats might revert to old secular biases and end the faith-based program altogether, preferring only public sector approaches as the remedy to poverty instead of also forging vital partnerships with civil society that include the faith community,” progressive evangelical Jim Wallis wrote in his July 2 Huffington Post column. “[I]t’s significant he’s taking a Bush proposal and building on it, Beliefnet’s Steven Waldman told Electra Draper  of the Denver Post July 14. “He says he’s a post-partisan guy. Here’s an example of that.”

Draper found others, however, who saw the speech as confirming rather than defying the stereotype of Democratic secularist bias. David Nammo, executive director of FRCAction, an arm of the Family Research Council, quipped that Obama was trying to rewrite the Book of James from “Faith without works is dead” to “Works without faith is preferred.” Another critical voice was that of David Kuo himself, who told Draper that opposing religious hiring rights “was a dumb move by Obama. Obama risked alienating every evangelical he was reaching out to.”

In retrospect it is clear that in the months following Zanesville evangelicals and others who favor preserving hiring rights of faith-based organizations did indeed make their potential alienation known to the Obama campaign. This may have had something to do with the more carefully calibrated language Obama used at Rick Warren’s presidential forum August 16:

“What we do want to make sure of is that as a general principle we’re not using federal funding to discriminate, but that is only when it comes to the narrow program that is being funded by the federal government. That does not affect any of the other ministries that are taking place.”

Through Election Day, the faith-based initiative largely receded into the background of media coverage. While it formally sided with those defending religious hiring rights, the McCain campaign did not attempt to score major points with the issue.

Not long after Obama’s inaug-uration, however, the question returned to the foreground. Speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast on February 5, the new president announced the creation of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships (OFANP), a revamped and renamed version of Bush’s “Faith-Based and Community Initiatives” office. Two aspects of the announcement were especially newsworthy.

First, whereas Bush’s initiative had focused mainly on social services for the poor, Obama intended to give it a broader role in policy development. A new 25-member Advisory Council would be created for that purpose. In addition to poverty reduction, other priorities would include reducing the need for abortion, encouraging responsible fatherhood, and working with the National Security Council on international interfaith dialogue.

Second, OFANP was given a formal mechanism for seeking the advice of the Attorney General’s office on “difficult legal and constitutional issues” on a case-by-case basis. In other words, instead of announcing any new measures to institutionalize new standards on religious hiring or other controversial issues, the Obama administration decided to let the status quo stand, though leaving open the possibility of revising policies in the future in response to specific problems that might arise.

This shift to a case-by-case approach was a clear climb-down from the Zanesville speech, and as such it attracted a considerable volume of media coverage and commentary. Institutionalizing ambiguity left both sides of the hiring dispute with hope that they would ultimately prevail—a move that was politically either astute or clumsy.

Writing in Time February 5, Amy Sullivan opted for the latter. The Zanesville speech had “caused an immediate uproar within the ranks of Obama’s religious supporters, who pushed him to back off from the promise to undo Bush’s Executive Order. He has not done so publicly, but several of them insist that Obama and his aides have given them private assurances that there will be no rapid movement to change the status quo with regard to religious hiring. If so, it would be a rare case of political ham-handedness by the Obama team, because his secular supporters say they have been assured that the hiring change will take place.”

Some evangelicals were optimistic in the wake of the National Prayer Breakfast. A few evangelicals who strongly support religious hiring (e.g., Jim Wallis, World Vision president Richard Stearns, Florida megachurch pastor Joel Hunter) were among the first 15 members appointed to the OFANP Advisory.

“Sounds to me like team Obama is trying to strike a sensible middle ground and see where all of this leads,” wrote Christian Broadcasting Network commentator David Brody on February 5. Joe Mettimano, VP for Advocacy at World Vision, told U.S. News and World Report’s Dan Gilgoff February 6 that the president “is taking a very practical and responsible approach to the whole issue of faith-based initiatives, including religious hiring rights.”

Others still had serious concerns. In a February 9 commentary piece in Christianity Today, Stephen Monsma and Stanley Carlson-Thies said that Obama’s initiative was off to a “promising start,” but worried about the president’s unwillingness to acknowledge what they regard as a clear constitutional principle supporting religious hiring rights.

The Weekly Standard’s Joseph Loconte took a harder line, based on the assumption that the Obama administration had not really softened its opposition to religious hiring rights. In a March 2 piece titled “Faith-Based Confusion,” Loconte argued that “if Planned Parenthood—which receives about $336 million in government grants and contracts—were denied the right to exclude pro-life Catholics from employment, its lawyers would be mobilizing like locusts.” Chuck Colson likewise sounded an alarm about threats to faith-based hiring during an interview with Mike Huckabee on Fox News Channel February 28.

Commentators on the left were also unhappy about the ambiguity, particularly since they thought Obama had articulated a clear stance in Zanesville. On February 6, Kathryn Kolbert, president of People for the American Way, told the Boston Globe’s Joseph Williams that Obama “made a promise on the campaign trail to [end hiring discrimination]. He should have done that.” Writing on the Huffington Post February 18, Reese Schonfeld argued that “Obama appears to be running scared—scared of the Republican minority in Congress, scared of faith-based groups, scared of boldness.”

The editorial boards of the New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times all agreed with the liberal critique. For example, the New York Times’ February 16 editorial, slugged “Faith-Based Fudging,” declared, “The case-by-case review seems destined to confuse as much as to enlighten. And it is hardly the clear commitment to proper employment practices Mr. Obama voiced as a candidate, and the Constitution requires.”

An exception to that editorial pattern came from the Christian Science Monitor, which said February 6 that while Obama’s case-by-case approach ducked the hard questions, ducking them was wise—because, “with the economy on the skids, now is not the time to cause a revolt among religious groups helping those in need.”

The end of the Bush administration has not closed the book, then, on the faith-based initiative.

The story began before Bush—with the “charitable choice” provision of the 1996 welfare reform bill, to be precise. It will continue, with many legal and political twists and turns in the plot still to be revealed. The only question is how long it will take for various cases and controversies to come to a head under the Obama regime.

Writing in First Things February 6, John DiIulio, the Philadelphia Democrat who first headed the Bush office of faith-based initiatives, thought it would be sooner rather than later:

“After the first 100 days or so, Obama and his council will not be able to vote ‘present’ on faith-based initiatives. Nor, as they seemed to do recently on abortion, should they expect those who are to their slight right (like some Catholic Democratic leaders) or to their far right (like many Republican evangelical Christian leaders) on issues like religious hiring rights to stay quiet or be satisfied with broad or bipartisan consultations that nonetheless are followed by one-sided policies.”

But just before the 100-day mark, Michelle Boorstein reported on the Washington Post’s “God in Government” blog that the Obama team still seemed determined to vote “present” on the hiring issue. The issue, wrote Boorstein, “is proving so explosive that White House officials have removed it from the to-do list of a task force that’s supposed to sift through church-state issues.”

The task force, one of six organized under Obama’s advisory council, will instead confine its efforts to things like simplifying the process for faith-based groups to form separate nonprofits. The lawyers in the White House and Attorney General’s office will ostensibly be left to their own devices to sort through the hiring cases.

In an April 24 commentary at Christianity Today’s politics blog, Calvin College political scientist Doug Koopman made a persuasive prediction about how things will likely unfold from here:

“The case-by-case decision process gives either a partial and somewhat surprising victory for the hiring rights side, or, more likely, a series of small, quiet, but cumulative losses. Both a majority of the advisory committee (and almost certainly nearly all the political hires at Justice and in the White House involved in the matter) appear to be on the other side, against ‘hiring discrimination’ as that side describes it. The case-by-case approach is probably a way to build a set of precedents limiting hiring rights step-by-step, and then in a few years decide that the ‘case law’ that they’ve created pretty much takes away most hiring rights.”

The only error in the above analysis is the word “quiet.” Expect plenty of noise from all sides, case by case.


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