On January 29, 2001, President George W. Bush established the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in an effort to increase federal support for smaller social-service groups, particularly religious ones. The program, which became known as the “faith-based initiative,” was an early hallmark of the Bush presidency, as well as a source of considerable controversy. President Bush declared his success in creating “a broad reorientation in government’s approach to addressing human need.” A key measure of this change was the share of federal discretionary grants going to faith-based groups. While overall gains were modest at best, in its final report on the faith-based initiative, issued in December 2008, the Bush administration highlighted the rising share of “welfare-to-work” grants going to faith-based organizations, from 3 percent in the late 1990s to more than 11 percent in 2007.

As President Barack Obama readies the faith-based initiative for a surprise second act, it should be no small consolation to former president George W. Bush that the policy he most believed in and in many ways pioneered still inspires great interest at the highest levels of government—and from a Democratic successor, no less. At the same time, there is no clearer evidence of President Obama’s genuine commitment to a new kind of politics.

The nearly complete political breakdown on this issue during Bush’s presidency offers many lessons for the current administration. Then as now, however, the most critical issue is so-called religious hiring rights. The question still looms: Does federal funding disqualify faith-based groups from using religious criteria in employment decisions and policies—an allowance they enjoy under both civil-rights law and Supreme Court rulings in cases not involving federal funding?

As it turned out, with a favorable legal environment and significant statutory groundwork to stand on (most importantly, the “charitable choice” provisions included in several major bills beginning with welfare reform in 1996), Bush did not need broad political support, or congressional help, to implement his faith-based initiative. The original goal was to “level the playing field” for smaller faith-based providers—that is, to remove regulatory and administrative barriers that prevent or limit the involvement of faith-based organizations in our social safety net. There had been a long history of government contracting with larger faith-based agencies such as Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services, but in leveling the playing field for smaller religious agencies, Bush’s main goal was to do so in a way that did not suppress their religious character and motivation. Employment policy has always been the most contentious issue in this regard, and it was a principal focus in the development of charitable-choice law. Bush used executive orders and legal interpretation to extend the protections provided in charitable choice to programs not already covered by those laws.

As I write, the culture-war faithful are readying their battle-plans on the newly redrawn political map. With the Democrats in power, some on the cultural left are particularly emboldened and threaten a legal trench war to the bitter end if President Obama does not repeal existing protections for religious employment. This should not deter the president from seeing what is really at stake and acting accordingly—a moral decision that ultimately rests on whether strong communities are important in his political vision. To that end, Bush’s many other failings should not prevent us from reconsidering the significant political ideas about community that shaped his controversial “redesign” of church-state relations in social welfare.

Bush’s focus on protecting the religious autonomy of faith-based contractors grew out of a much larger movement in U.S. welfare policy. Cutting across several major confessional traditions, and overlapping, to some extent, with more conventional “devolutionary” reform ideas, this movement—call it the charitable-choice movement—is shaped by a political philosophy known as “social pluralism.” A defining influence on the more conservative welfare states of Europe where Christian Democratic parties were particularly influential (for example, Germany, the Netherlands, and Italy), social pluralism was originally forged out of the nineteenth-century struggle of churches to protect their traditional influence in education and social assistance against the encroaching secular norms and fiscal power of emerging welfare states. In his 1953 masterwork The Quest for Community, the sociologist Robert Nisbet laid the groundwork for a social-pluralist critique of American liberalism, and three decades later such ideas began to gain significant political traction in the context of welfare reform.

Social pluralism is a theory of governance that divides sovereignty between social institutions and the state. In political and legal thought, this is contrasted with Anglo-American liberalism, which vests the state with total sovereignty limited only by individual rights. Insisting on a realm of communal or collective rights, social pluralism requires government to coordinate with—and even support—social groups on their own terms of authority and self-development. This is especially the case in areas where public agencies and social groups have overlapping missions—for example, in education and welfare. From a pluralist perspective, state restrictions on religious contractors’ employment policies, ethical practices, and so forth, create a system of antisocial domination. The domination occurs as families, churches, and other basic structures of community are morally diminished and denied legal standing against the claims of individuals and the power of government. In opposing this, the pluralist welfare tradition developed by Christian-Democratic parties and governments has promoted decentralized service delivery and high levels of religious participation and autonomy, combined with high social spending and an emphasis on family support.

The delayed and fragmented development of the American welfare state may partly explain why social pluralism had little influence in our political thought and policy debates until quite recently. But in proposing to combine public spending with autonomous social activity (directed, of course, toward statutory welfare purposes), charitable choice and the larger faith-based design promoted by President Bush bear all the hallmarks of such thinking—especially on the issue of religious employment. Unfortunately, President Obama’s stated views on the constitutionality of faith-based initiatives, expressed on the campaign trail last July and reiterated in his campaign’s official paper on the matter, suggest that religious-employment protections hold an uncertain place in his policy vision and may be rolled back. But the executive order he issued on February 5, authorizing the new White House Office and Advisory Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, did not directly address the issue. The reprieve was good news for many allies of the faith-based initiative.

President Obama says he wants to defend families and communities from destabilizing forces like foreclosure and job loss. Putting a high secular price on public resources—insisting that no public support be available to a religious agency unless its charitable work bears no real trace of its religious identity—does not serve that objective and in some ways contradicts it. Leave aside the fact that existing civil-rights law and Supreme Court rulings support religious hiring rights, and that only one federal court, a district court in Mississippi, has ruled that religious employment discretion is forfeited with the acceptance of government funds. Leave aside a more recent federal court decision upholding the constitutionality of faith-based employment in a federally funded social agency (Lown v. Salvation Army, 2005). The more important reason these protections should not be repealed is a moral one. Put simply, restricting religious hiring rights in the faith-based initiative attacks the very thing it claims to be supporting. That is, it attacks communities.

The Supreme Court’s greatest advocate for the poor, Justice William Brennan, deciphered these issues carefully in his separate opinion in Corporation of the Presiding Bishop v. Amos (1987), the key constitutional case on religious hiring rights. As he wrote, “For many individuals, religious activity derives meaning in large measure from participation in a larger religious community. Such a community represents an ongoing tradition of shared beliefs, an organic entity not reducible to a mere aggregation of individuals.” He concluded that faith-based hiring rights as protected under civil-rights law do not represent an unconstitutional “establishment” of religion but merely a recognition that communities of believers lie at the heart of all (or most) religious traditions; and that these have a right to maintain their identity as communities. For government to restrict the criteria and discretion by which religious communities define and maintain their identity threatens the very existence of religion, as Justice Brennan understood.

Ultimately, then, repealing religious hiring rights in the faith-based initiative is not only constitutionally unnecessary; it is morally incoherent according to the president’s own stated ideal of serving and protecting communities. Three decades of political abandonment of poor communities and working families-the effects of which are becoming ever more visible as the whole economy collapses—can only be compounded by a new wave of unreflective liberal orthodoxy on the role of religious communities in our welfare system. To save America from social ruin, it is precisely the moral and legal standing of families and communities that we need to discern, express, and codify—first in our government, but ultimately in the marketplace. To this end, society must be publicly protected, not ruled by the government or abandoned to private destruction. Public support for the life-saving work of faith-based providers is protective in this sense; suppressing their religious identities as a condition of public support is not.


Related: Discrimination: How Dirty a Word? by Robert K. Vischer

Lew Daly is a senior fellow and director of the Fellows Program at Demos, a public-policy organization based in New York City. He is the author of God's Economy: Faith-Based Initiatives and the Caring State, to be published in the fall by the University of Chicago Press.
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Published in the 2009-03-13 issue: View Contents
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