The Magazine

Faith-Based Confusion

Will 'charitable choice' survive the Obama Justice Department?

Mar 2, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 23 • By JOSEPH LOCONTE
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The Supreme Court has yet to hear a case on the issue. But recent High Court rulings, such as Mitchell v. Helms (2000), have affirmed the right of religious organizations to accept government grants without becoming secular agents of the state. And in 2007, the Justice Department ruled that World Vision, an evangelical group, was free to hire only those who shared its Christian beliefs to administer a $1.5 million grant to help at-risk children. That decision seems consistent with the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which forbids the federal government from placing "substantial burdens" on religious organizations. (It's also worth noting that, as required by charitable choice, these religious groups serve people of all faiths or of no faith.)

Largely forgotten in this debate is how the charitable choice law has fostered new alliances between government and faith communities to help the poor and marginalized. For instance, a significant number of the churches and religious charities tackling problems such as poverty, crime, drug abuse, and family breakdown are African American. Surveys show that African-American pastors and community leaders are the most enthusiastic about the new partnerships with government. They are also among the most religiously devout groups in the country. Hence the paradox of Barack Obama: America's first black president seems prepared to nullify the self-government and spiritual identity of black institutions.

There were hints of Obama's ambivalence toward religion even during his recent appearance at the National Prayer Breakfast. He lamented that faith has been used as "an excuse for prejudice and intolerance." He recalled that "wars have been waged" and "innocents have been slaughtered" over religion. By contrast, when George Bush first spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2001, he did not warn the mostly Christian audience, gathered for coffee and danish, about religion's heart of darkness. "Millions of Americans serve their neighbor because they love their God," he said. "They do for others what no government program can really ever do: They provide love for another human being; they provide hope even when hope comes hard."

If President Obama agrees--if what he really admires about these good Samaritans is their "living, breathing, active faith"--then he'll allow them to live, breathe, and move without government dictating every step along the way. By pressing ahead with an agenda to restrict their freedom, he will only alienate countless neighborhood caregivers who cannot isolate their charitable work from their religious ideals.

Joseph Loconte is a senior research fellow at the King's College in New York City.