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Doubting Obama

His faith-based initiative isn't what it's cracked up to be.

6:00 PM, Jul 8, 2008 • By KEITH PAVLISCHEK
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IN THEIR JULY 4 Washington Post op-ed columns E.J. Dionne and Michael Gerson both praised Senator Barack Obama's rhetorical embrace of President Bush's faith-based initiative. Despite this seemingly bipartisan consensus, supporters of President Bush's faith-based initiative should think twice before uncorking the champagne.

Gerson reminds us that as a young staffer to Senator Dan Coats in 1994, he was in on the ground floor of the entire idea. Coats was among the few Republicans who "were convinced that an exclusively anti-government approach [to the problems of addiction, disadvantaged youth, and homelessness] would be both morally and politically self-destructive." Gerson later pitched the idea to Bush who made it a centerpiece of his 2000 presidential campaign.

Those of us who shared Gerson's enthusiasm for the faith-based initiatives found ourselves in a two-sided debate arguing against assorted strict-separationist organizations such as the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, the ACLU and the like on one side and with libertarians on the other.

We thought we were staking out a moderate and reasonable position that took a cue from Tocqueville's understanding of civil society, from Roman Catholic teachings about "subsidiarity" and "mediating structures" as well as teachings about "sphere sovereignty" from that strain of Protestant social thought identified with Abraham Kuyper. Against the libertarians we made the case for the responsibility of the government for the poor in particular and for social justice more generally. Against the strict separationists we made the case for equal treatment--arguing that religious nonprofits should be neither privileged nor discriminated against simply because they were religious. Religious nonprofits seeking to aid the poor should not be forced to secularize as a condition of public support. And that included the right of religious nonprofits to make employment decisions based on their deepest moral and religious convictions.

We thought this was a slam dunk because treating religious organizations equally by allowing them to hire employees who support their mission has long been the settled American consensus on civil rights. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended in 1972, four Charitable Choice laws signed by President Clinton and Supreme Court case law all support the right of faith-based organizations to hire employees based on their religious commitment. (See the Center for Public Justice's Guide to Charitable Choice.)

The hiring issue became a problem only when the cultural warriors of the Left saw Bush's faith-based initiative as a threat to their political strength and sought to deny Bush a political victory. Even John DiIulio, Bush's first head of the Faith-Based initiative gets this wrong. As Joseph Knippenberg shows in a review of DiIulio's Godly Republic: A Centrist Blueprint for America's Faith-Based Future, he mistakenly states that the Charitable Choice legislation signed by President Clinton and the Civil Right Act does not contain such a robust hiring protection.

Regardless, it is still hard to see the objection to maintaining these protections. It is a matter of simple justice. If a nonprofit center provided counseling to drug addicts based on some secular (say, Freudian) theory of counseling, they should not be required to hire, as a condition of government funding, Christian counselors (or anti-Freudian secularists for that matter) who take a different approach. And vice versa. Gay-friendly counseling centers should not be required, as a condition of funding, to hire fundamentalists or Roman Catholics who have profound moral objections to homosexual activity. And vice versa.

Again we all thought this was an entirely reasonable position; one that was fully in accord with equal treatment and equal access understandings of the First Amendment's establishment clause and was fully in keeping with an expansive notion of the free exercise of religion.