Secularization Renewed?

Tom Flynn

In Wendy Kaminer’s op-ed and in this issue’s cover feature, we focus on public funding for faith-based charities. As several writers note, the practice of funneling government money to religious charities began during the Great Society years. Of course, those recipients (organizations such as Catholic Charities) were notably secularized. Incorporated independently of their sponsoring churches, they helped—and often hired—without regard to creed and concealed religious symbols while delivering services. (Still, even this breach of the church-state wall made resolute secularists queasy.) Starting in the 1970s, evangelicals argued that withholding public funds from more overtly religious charities discriminated against people of faith. The first White House to find that view persuasive was Bill Clinton’s. Fortunately, his administration recognized that the most obvious ways of making government friendlier toward faith-based charities happened to be unconstitutional. George W. Bush had no such scruples; under his administration faith-based funding came into its own with alarming results.

Until mid-2008, secular humanists could hope that a new Democratic president might end these abuses with the stroke of a pen. (That’s all it would have taken; Bush’s faith-based apparatus was based solely on executive orders.) But it soon became clear that Barack Obama would not be that president. Candidate Obama pledged to continue offering religious charities public support. (As Susan Jacoby notes in her essay, how quickly a radical, even illegal, practice can weave itself into the tapestry of “normal.") Obama also pledged that he would not let charities receiving public funds practice employment discrimination based on religion. Guess which pledge he fulfilled?

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