Seven Reasons Obama’s Faith-Based Initiative Is Wrong

D.J. Grothe

President Barack Obama has gratified the “reality-based community” by reversing some of his predecessor’s policies on everything from the detention and torture of terror suspects to government funding of abortion and family planning counseling, fuel-efficiency standards, and stem-cell research. But one part of Obama’s program represents change I can’t believe in. The change Obama brought to Bush’s faith-based initiative was actually to expand the program. This was done without any attempt to change it in the right direction by officially prohibiting proselytizing and religious discrimination.

Some seculars may feel ambivalent about Obama’s approach to George W. Bush’s faith-based initiative: one of its stated goals is to mobilize faith and community groups to more effectively combat poverty, obviously a worthwhile goal and one generally ignored by Bush. It seems that Obama doesn’t object to government funds going to religious organizations; he merely objects that Bush’s faith-based office failed to do this very effectively. But even if the Obama program focuses on poverty, it still means an increase in taxpayer dollars going to private religious organizations that will likely use this funding (directly or indirectly) to proselytize the people they serve and to hire and fire based on religious criteria.

Some of the other objectives Obama has given for expanding the faith-based program are questionable. These include reducing the number of (and need for) abortions, increasing the role of fathers in their childrens’ lives, and working with the National Security Council to encourage “interfaith dialogue” around the globe. Why is all of this just flat-out wrong? Is it just closed-minded secular purism to oppose Obama’s increase in funding for religious organizations for what he feels are noble, commonsense goals? Well, no. Faith-based funding using public monies is a really bad idea, and here are seven reasons why.

1. There is no real oversight of the religious groups to receive funding under Obama’s expanded program. According to Joshua DuBois, the twenty-six-year-old head of Obama’s White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships (and a Pentecostal preacher!), hiring and firing, as well as charges of proselytizing using government funds, will be investigated only on a “case by case basis.” In other words, there is no official policy prohibiting either.

Will there be any recourse if someone’s rights are not respected? What if an otherwise qualified socially conscious gay atheist (or Buddhist or Jew) is not given a job or is fired from a job helping the poor by one of these religious organizations simply because that organization objects to her homosexuality and atheism (or Buddhism or Judaism)?

2. There is a real risk that widely respected safeguards protecting the separation of church and state may actually be overturned. According to DuBois, what he and his colleagues “find as they explore these issues” of church-state separation may in fact result in “a change in law and policy.”

3. There aren’t clear criteria drawing distinctions between mainline and fringe faith groups. Who decides what religious groups get government funds? Will there be an “extremist or fringe group” category that would under no circumstances receive taxpayer support? Who decides which religious social-welfare programs are really working and by what evidence-based criteria?

Quite a few organizations that I consider downright dangerous engage in social-welfare programs. Scientology promotes, among many other things, a highly dubious addiction-recovery program called Narconon. Some Mormon Church family counseling services seek to convert “recovering homosexuals.” There are even U.S. affiliates of Hamas that operate great social-welfare programs for devout (anti-Western?) Muslims.

What about the many religious denominations and leaders that teach that poverty itself is a result of sin or of one’s mental perspective? Television prosperity gospeler Robert Tilton teaches how to get out of poverty through the Holy Spirit. Oft-criticized televangelists including Rod Parsley and Benny Hinn reportedly operate social-welfare charities.

Will Scientology or Mormonism or Robert Tilton get federal funding under Obama’s expanded faith-based program? Joshua DuBois has in fact suggested that funding of such fringe groups will be allowed.

4. Reducing the number of abortions is a completely unworthy goal. Speaking for myself, I think that abortion should be more, not less, widespread. I’m among the minority of secularists who argue that abortion is completely licit and that it may in fact solve some social ills. Thinkers across the political spectrum, including the economists John Donohue at Yale and Steven Levitt at the University of Chicago, suggest that the legalization of abortion led to a reduction in crime. Whether or not you accept that argument, the most likely result of any program to reduce abortions will be to increase births into poverty. How does that square with a putatively antipoverty agenda?

Most secularists would agree that abortion is not a morally wrong act that should be reduced by the work of government-funded religious groups. In any case, no one who values church-state separation should be pleased by the prospect of government monies (your tax dollars or mine) going to the Catholic or the Mormon churches under the guise of “reducing the need for abortion.” Reducing abortions for its own sake strikes me as a completely unworthy goal.

5. Government-funded support of religion to encourage “interfaith dialogue” is not the way to reduce religious tensions around the world. The way to reduce religious tensions between different faith groups is not to put the full force of the U.S. government behind some faith groups and not others. Nor is government-funded interfaith dialogue the solution, especially since the thrust of such dialogue is often hostile toward secularism. Instead, the United States should foster an appreciation for secularism around the world, even (perhaps especially) in Islamic societies.

6. In a society that promotes religious liberty, taxpayers should not be forced to contribute to religions they don’t personally support. Leaving aside specific issues like abortion, the libertarian in me argues that no Catholic should be forced by the U.S. government to contribute to a synagogue. No secularist should be forced to contribute to the Church of Scientology. If separation of church and state means anything, it means that no taxpayer should ever be forced to support a religion he or she doesn’t believe in. This is less an expression of secularism than an argument from religious freedom—and it should carry the same weight among liberals and conservatives. Conservative religionists would be right to object if their tax dollars go to support groups that advance a liberal social gospel or engage in pro-gay community outreach. Likewise, taxpayers who support abortion (or abortion rights) shouldn’t be compelled by the state to support Catholic or Mormon organizations that are explicitly pro-life and would use tax funds to advance that agenda.

7. One of Obama’s goals, to “increase the role of fathers,” is based on pseudoscience and is tied to the destructive “pro-marriage” agenda. We often hear that “because so many single mothers live with their children in poverty, it must be due to the fact that the man is absent.” But this confuses causation with correlation. In fact, the opposite may be true: poverty often discourages m
arriage and leads to absent fathers, while a father’s staying in the picture doesn’t necessarily reduce poverty. Obama’s underlying assumption is that if we get absent fathers more involved in the lives of their children, the quality of life will increase for all. But this is not borne out by the facts. There’s even research showing that among the poverty-stricken urban population, children of absent fathers do better academically than do those who have both parents involved in their lives. This aspect of Obama’s program is little more than social engineering based on outmoded views of the family. The funds it commands could be better used to fight poverty through sound policies—increasing resources for education or funding secular social-welfare programs. It’s worth noting that in the secular mixed economies of Europe, no need is felt to discourage single motherhood. (For instance, in France more women have children out of wedlock than within it, without proclamations of social emergency.)

Finally, the argument that a child needs specifically a man and a woman as father- and mother-figures, or that single motherhood is harmful to children, mirrors antiwoman, anti-gay, conservative social agendas so closely that I’m frankly puzzled by Obama’s attachment to it.

It behooves all secularists, whether personally religious or not, to oppose Obama on faith-based funding. We must not let ourselves be guilted into supporting bad policy because we think Obama is a great guy or because we think he’s “better than the last guy.” I for one am not willing to give Obama a pass on this issue. In just a few short weeks, the president who initially inspired me and filled me, as a secularist, with hope for the future has given me my first big disappointment.

D.J. Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.


President Barack Obama has gratified the “reality-based community” by reversing some of his predecessor’s policies on everything from the detention and torture of terror suspects to government funding of abortion and family planning counseling, fuel-efficiency standards, and stem-cell research. But one part of Obama’s program represents change I can’t believe in. The change Obama brought …

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