Friday, February 6, 2009

FAITH, NO MORE




Barack Obama made a firm campaign promise. He pledged to keep up President Bush’s faith-based office in the White House, but with a caveat. Any group receiving federal money would no longer be allowed the option of discriminating in hiring on the basis of religion. Yesterday, however, as he disclosed the details of his 'brand-new' initiative, it became clear that has left the whole Bush policy in place.

I am very angry. I really don’t want to think of myself as a card-carrying Civil Libertarian. I am what I like to call a gray-area democrat. I’m always open to an exchange of ideas, but I strongly felt that Dubya’s executive order of 2002 took the public goodwill he owned at the time because of 9/11 a step too far. Let’s not pussyfoot around this, Barack. Tell me how it is ever okay to discriminate? Are you offended by the very idea of discrimination or are you not? Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's. When everybody piled on you about the Reverend Jeremiah A.Wright and his notion of racial and religious apartheid, I stood by you. You were not him, I insisted. Unless you chose to jump in the fire holding his hand. Well, metaphorically at least, you just went and did it!

Thursday’s speech pleased many of the religious conservatives who owned George Bush. “I am very excited about this,” said the former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Frank Page. Page is one of 24 cherry-picked religious leaders chosen as an advice council for the White House. He put it this way: “I know he was struggling with this particular issue. But this will allow religious groups to be true to themselves.”

At the same time, executing some very fancy footwork, Obama insisted that he would seek counsel from the Justice Department if questions arose about the legal standing of individual grant recipients. Essentially, Obama’s executive order, which never once mentions discrimination in specific terms, allows the White House the chance to hum and ha over every specific grant, wet its collective finger, hold up that finger and see which way the breeze is blowing. In other words, Obama’s administration is keeping Bush’s policy 100% in place.

Of course, the White House spokeswoman, Jennifer Psaki, charmingly rejected any notion that the President was reversing himself on a campaign promise. The new executive order, according to Ms. Psaki, “strengthens the constitutional and legal footing of the faith-based office and helps provide a mechanism to address difficult legal issues. On contentious issues like hiring, the president found that one of the problems of the previous initiative was that tough questions were decided without appropriate consultation.”

Religious groups such as Catholic Charities and Salvation Army have long received government money, but Bush’s credo was that the faith-based office was meant to direct federal dollars to smaller religious organizations, charities and churches. Any fool knows that the Bush initiative was a tool to flirt with and court influential pastors in important states. The hiring issue was a bitterly fought point of conflict between Bush and the Democrats. Thus, in 2002, Bush’s executive order allowed the award of multiple federal grants to organizations which hired only people of like-minded religions. Supporters, of course, defended Bush’s policy by vehemently arguing that supporters of any religious group could not operate according to its tenets if it were forced to hire non-believers.

Yet, in July, Obama himself singled out the policy in a speech. "If you get a federal grant, you can't use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can't discriminate against them -- or against the people you hire -- on the basis of their religion." Unfortunately, having won the election, Obama and his transition team were instantaneously lobbied by an army of religious conservatives. Well, there was that, of course, but there's also the reality that Barack's campaign was driven by hundreds of thousands of individual donations like never before. The logical extension of this, naturally, is the potential millions that can be raised for the 2012 war chest from individual churchgoers as a byproduct of shmoozing tens of millions of believers.

The Reverend Joshua DuBois, who led religious outreach efforts for Obama's campaign, has refused to discuss whether the new administration will retain Bush's executive order. Along with the well organized Southern Baptist Convention, the marine corps of the Right, one of the other major power brokers is Richard Stearns, president of World Vision, a Christian service organization based in Washington state. They’ve been quiet in public so far, but another powerful council member, the Rev. Jim Wallis, head of the liberal evangelical group Sojourners, and a strong supporter of the Bush policy, said the faith leaders were told on Thursday by Obama that "there would not be significant changes in the near term."

I believe that the President Obama has erred in not revoking the Bush policy. Doesn’t it seem deeply ironic that the first black president is cynically keeping in place a policy that embraces discrimination? We would all be wise to recall Aldous Huxley's ringing admonition: History reveals the Church and the State as a pair of indispenable Molochs. They protect their worshipping subjects, only to enslave and destroy them.

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