Obama and Faith-Based Initiatives
Last week, Sanator Obama announced his commitment to a Presidential Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
One of the reasons that I support Senator Obama for President (I’m on his National Catholic Advisory Council) is that he’s willing to take good ideas from all sources–Republicans as well as Democrats. President Bush started an Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives Program in the White House, which recognized the importance of people of faith in addressing social problems and building up local communities. Unfortunately, it appears that the program was significantly diverted from its original purpose to serve partisan political ends. Money, in short, was channeled to people who would help secure Republican victories. See David Kuo’s Tempting Faith;John DiIulio Jr., the first director of Bush’s Faith-Based Initiative office, also made similar charges.
In this context, especially given President Bush’s unpopularity, it would have been easy for Senator Obama to follow the old script, point to these abuses, and say that this is why Democrats can’t have anything to do with religion. But he didn’t. Abusus non tollit usum. As a former community organizer who worked with Catholic programs in Chicago, he knows first-hand the power of persons of faith to work for the common good. Moreover, his approach to faith-based programs, in my view, reflect the insight of of what we Catholics call the principle of subsidiarity–all things being equal, it’s the people closest to social problems have the best hope of working together to solve them. I see subsidiarity reflected in Senator Obama’s commitment to “training the trainers.” A key part of his program is providing education for smaller, localized faith communities so that it isn’t merely the big and powerful faith groups who have access to grant-writing skills and government funds.
At the same time, Senator Obama is sensitive to the facts that taxpayer money has to be dedicated to building up the political common good–the good of what St. Augustine would call the Earthly City–rather than to increasing membership of the Heavenly City (which is ultimately a matter for God’s grace) . Building up the political common good is a project in which people of good will can cooperate, no matter what their faith. So the organizational arms of faith-based groups which receive public funds won’t be allowed to discriminate, either in the provision of services or in hiring people to provide those services. Furthermore, they won’t be allowed to use the provision of services as an occasion to proselytize.
I myself think this is a workable approach in a pluralistic society. Thoughts?