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 (Im on his National Catholic Advisory Council) is that hes willing to take good ideas from all sourcesRepublicans 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 Kuos Tempting Faith;John DiIulio Jr., the first director of Bushs Faith-Based Initiative office, also made similar charges.In this context, especially given President Bushs 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 cant have anything to do with religion. But he didnt. 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 subsidiarityall things being equal, its 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 isnt 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 goodthe good of what St. Augustine would call the Earthly Cityrather than to increasing membership of the Heavenly City (which is ultimately a matter for Gods 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 wont be allowed to discriminate, either in the provision of services or in hiring people to provide those services. Furthermore, they wont 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?

Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.

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