Keeping the Faith, Ignoring the History

Susan Jacoby

Nearly everyone now takes for granted the wisdom, constitutionality, and inevitability of some form of federal financing for community social services run by religious groups. Who anymore can imagine that the United States managed to exist for over two hundred years without the government providing any direct aid to faith and its works?

It is truly dismaying that amid all the discussion about President Barack Obama’s version of faith-based community initiatives, there has been such a widespread reluctance to question the basic assumption that government can spend money on religiously based enterprises without violating the First Amendment. The debate has instead focused on whether proselytizing or religious hiring discrimination should be permitted when church groups take public money. This shows how easy it is to institutionalize a bad idea based on unexamined assumptions about service to a greater good.

In 1996, President Bill Clinton started down the slippery slope toward a constitutionally questionable form of faith-based aid when he signed a welfare-reform bill that included a “charitable choice” provision allowing religious groups to compete for grants. Under President George W. Bush, a separate White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives was established—a significant expansion of charitable choice. Bush, who instituted his faith-based program through executive orders rather than trying to get a bill establishing the office through Congress, quickly put the money to political use.

The administration provided large grants for projects favored by the Christian Right, like Charles Colson’s Prison Fellowship Ministries and Teen Challenge, a drug rehabilitation program that openly pushed religious conversion (even using the phrase “completed Jews” to describe teenage converts from Judaism) as a way of overcoming addiction. John J. DiIulio Jr., the first director of Bush’s faith-based office, resigned after only eight months and later complained about the politicization of the program.

Throughout Bush’s second term, the Democratic Party’s “religious Left” maintained that the party needed to shed its secular image to attract more religious voters. As far as these Democrats were concerned, the only problem with faith-based programs was that most of the money was going to religious and political conservatives.

Enter Barack Obama, who spoke the language of both faith and secularism—and who promised during the campaign to expand faith-based aid while, at the same time, prohibiting proselytizing and religious hiring discrimination in federally financed programs. Yet early in February when the president announced his new faith-based team, headed by Pentecostal minister Josh DuBois, Obama left the Bush orders in place, and DuBois later announced that hiring practices would be vetted by the Justice Department “case by case.”

Some have tried to justify direct, White House-administered faith-based aid by pointing to long-established practices allowing programs like Medicare and Medicaid to pay for services provided to patients in religiously affiliated hospitals. But for these hospitals, nondiscrimination in both hiring and patient admissions was always a condition of eligibility for any federal money.

It is also worth noting that Obama’s compromise has drawn criticism not only from secularists and civil libertarians but from religious conservatives like R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who maintains that the unlimited right to proselytize and to hire members of their own faith is essential if churches are not to compromise their mission. As a thoroughgoing secularist, I consider Mohler much clearer-minded than Democratic faith-based advocates, who wish to believe that devout proselytizers are somehow going to stifle themselves while providing “secular” social services.

The fact is that many people served by these projects—including children with absent fathers, addicts, and prisoners—form a captive audience. It cannot be easy to say no to a proselytizer if saying yes means a warm bed in a homeless shelter, extra help for a child, or more privileges while serving jail time. Embrace Jesus as your savior and, who knows, you may get early parole.

Furthermore, as Mohler points out, there is also a peril to religious independence from government in these programs. What government gives, government can take away. What happens if hard-pressed African American churches serving poor communities—where enthusiasm for faith-based initiatives has always been high and has only intensified during the current economic crisis—come to rely on government money and the rug is pulled out from under them by a future administration?

Those who argue in favor of more religious involvement in government, and vice versa, always claim that the First Amendment does not mandate separation of church and state but simply prohibits state preference for any church. But even by that religion-infused standard, faith-based aid cannot help but favor some religions over others. For instance, nearly all non-Orthodox Jewish groups and liberal ecumenical religious organizations are opposed to government subsidy. How can it not violate the First Amendment to set up a program that even by default favors those groups eager to jump on the federal gravy train?

The other canker at the heart of faith-based initiatives is the assumption that religiously based programs work better than secular and government efforts. For the faithful, though, the efficacy of these programs is an article of faith, not a conclusion supported by objective evidence.

Back in 2003, there was a flurry of excitement surrounding a study that at first glance seemed to suggest that participants in Colson’s prison programs in Texas had been rearrested at much lower rates than other released prisoners. There was just one problem: the study excluded everyone who quit the program in prison—two-thirds of the starting group. It is as if the Department of Education were to measure the success of public schools by not counting dropouts. This ought to give pause to Obama, who has spoken so often about restoring evidence and science to public policy-making.

President Obama might also take a moment to reread the religious freedom act passed by the Virginia General Assembly in 1786, with strong support from both Baptists and freethinkers. That law, which prohibited tax support for religious teaching in public schools, became the template for the establishment clause of the First Amendment and also helped establish our American tradition of government freedom from religious interference and religious freedom from government interference.

Yet we are moving blindly ahead with faith-based federal spending as if it were not a radical break with our past. If faith-based initiatives, first institutionalized by the executive fiat of a conservative Republican president, become even more entrenched under a liberal Democratic administration, there will be no going back. In place of the First Amendment, we will have a sacred cash cow.

Reprinted with permission from the New York Times, February 28, 2009.

Susan Jacoby

Susan Jacoby is the author of The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought (Yale University Press). Her most recent books are The Age of American Unreason in a Culture of Lies (Vintage) and Why Baseball Matters (Yale University Press).

Nearly everyone now takes for granted the wisdom, constitutionality, and inevitability of some form of federal financing for community social services run by religious groups. Who anymore can imagine that the United States managed to exist for over two hundred years without the government providing any direct aid to faith and its works? It is …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.