Sometimes the most important message of a speech is communicated by the atmospherics—timing, audience, venue. So it’s worth noting that, to mark the first anniversary of her Let’s Move! campaign against childhood obesity in February, First Lady Michelle Obama spoke not at a school or a kids’ recreational facility but at the North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Georgia.

At first glance, celebrating with an evangelical Christian congregation might not be the obvious way to highlight the White House’s anti-obesity efforts. But the choice is part of a broader push by the Obama administration to get churches on board with the first lady’s health agenda.

Working through the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and its satellites at various cabinet agencies, the administration launched the “Let’s Move Faith and Communities” initiative in November. Since then, the administration’s faith-based offices have been busily recruiting converts for the nutrition crusade. The executive director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, Joshua DuBois, has been a cheerleader for Let’s Move! on the office’s blog. The director of the Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Max Finberg, has joined with John Kelly—the strategic adviser for faith-based and neighborhood partnerships at the Corporation for National and Community Service (a federal agency)—to launch the National Anti-Hunger and Opportunity Corps. The organization is sending new AmeriCorps volunteers to urban and rural areas across the country, where they will work with churches and community groups to sign people up for food stamps.

The centerpiece of the effort is the 52-page “Let’s Move! Toolkit for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Organizations,” published by the faith-based office at the Department of Health and Human Services. Much of what the toolkit recommends is innocuous—encouraging churches to host kids’ intramural sports leagues, for instance. But several sections illustrate the Obamas’ strange understanding of the role of religious communities in America and suggest how, under this president, faith-based offices at the White House and in the agencies have changed their mission and purview.

Some of the proposals seem oddly detached from the actual priorities and challenges of religious congregations. Churches are given detailed instructions for starting community gardens (including the reminder that “It is not a community garden without a COMMUNITY!”). Congregations are encouraged to form “motivational groups” to help members with such activities as “using a shopping list” and to “teach others about preserving local food by organizing canning and preserving sessions.” Religious leaders are prodded to work with schools to “create a wellness club for teachers with volunteer instructors from the congregation” and to “help your local school install a salad bar in its cafeteria.”

Most worrisome, though, are the administration’s efforts to have congregations place themselves in the service of government as recruiters for the welfare state. Congregations are told to “encourage eligible families to enroll their children in [government-subsidized] school meal programs”; if organizations operate day-care or after-school programs, they are advised to pursue reimbursement for meals and snacks through the Child and Adult Care Food Program (a federally funded, state-administered welfare program). Places of worship are asked to serve as feeding sites for the Summer Food Service Program—another federally funded, state-run welfare project. Sections on breastfeeding and supporting pregnant women and new mothers tell churches to “promote participation” in the Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).

The toolkit’s big sell is getting faith-based groups to spread the good news about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. When they sponsor a farmers’ market at their place of worship, congregations are told to “advocate for hosts to accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.” Churches are also encouraged to:

Form an outreach group with a goal of helping eligible congregants sign up for SNAP. Train staff and volunteers at your congregation or organization with basic information about SNAP and how to apply. Have an information table before and after services where volunteers help eligible congregants apply for SNAP. Your local SNAP office can partner with you and help provide training and materials. .  .  . Consider displaying SNAP posters, flyers, magnets, and other materials in your place of worship or organization. .  .  . Put SNAP information in all bulletins, newsletters, and other print and electronic items shared with the congregation or community. If your organization manages a food pantry, include SNAP information with food that you distribute. .  .  . Give out recipe cards that also include information about SNAP.

This approach is a marked departure from the original purpose of the White House faith-based initiative. Launched at the outset of President George W. Bush’s first term, the initiative was largely intended to allow religious entities to compete on an equal footing with secular ones for grants to deliver social services. When it came to treating addicts, rehabilitating prisoners, mentoring children, sheltering the homeless, and, yes, feeding the hungry, the Bush administration argued that faith-based organizations often had better records of efficiency and compassion than government programs. But rather than reducing the public’s dependence on government-run programs by empowering faith-based organizations, this White House seems to view churches, synagogues, and so on as tools to increase reliance on programs designed in Washington.

“They’re turning this on its head,” said Rev. Richard Land, who handles public policy for the Southern Baptist Convention. The wisdom of the original faith-based initiative—about which he was initially skeptical, Land explains—was “to have people who live in a zip code making the decisions about what are the best ways to alleviate the problem in that zip code,” rather than being pushed to follow some federal initiative. Under the Obama administration, Land said, “the White House says what your priorities should be.” He added, “If Bush had proposed what Obama has proposed, they would have been putting Prozac in the water at the ACLU.”

Requests for on-the-record comment from the faith-based office at the Department of Health and Human Services brought no response. But one defender of the Obamas’ plan—New York state senator Rubén Díaz Sr., a Democrat from the South Bronx and an evangelical pastor—says that clergy have an obligation to use their influence to do “anything that will benefit the lives of our people,” including combating childhood obesity. Though Díaz says he doesn’t “want this to be used as a political platform,” he believes “churches are better than anybody to do these things.”

But even if Díaz is right, is the Obamas’ approach the best way to involve churches in the fight against childhood obesity and poor nutrition? After all, any group of people can organize an exercise club, host a farmers’ market, or teach a cooking class. And government already spends millions of dollars every year just getting people signed up for welfare benefits. Having churches do this work makes sense only if one views them as a particularly effective instrument of community organizing—as the Obamas seem to.

This view, however, fails to recognize what is so powerful about houses of worship and to understand their unique role in the lives of the faithful and the nation. Churches—unlike secular civic groups or government programs—speak to Americans about temptation and temperance, sin and redemption, repentance and love. Without apology, the various faiths and denominations, each in its own way, present to their followers a coherent vision of a well-ordered life—whether they focus on character, will power, and self-discipline or on God’s grace as the way to achieve it. Over thousands of years, religious institutions have held out spiritual renewal as the predicate to turning lives around; they alone can preach a message of personal transformation.

And this, more than any sustainable garden, is what’s required to keep American kids at a healthy weight. Many of the places where childhood obesity is most prevalent—poor urban neighborhoods, African-American and Hispanic communities—are also those that have been most devastated by the breakdown of the family. The behavior patterns that contribute to childhood obesity—lack of supervision, too many meals eaten outside the home, a dearth of physical activity—are related to a shortage of adult attention and investment in children’s health and good habits. The evidence suggests that keeping families intact and having parents take more responsibility for their children are beneficial to children’s health.

If the Obamas really want to curb childhood obesity, perhaps they ought to use their platform to support some of the nonsectarian messages that faith-based institutions promote—taking responsibility for one’s own life and the lives of one’s children, keeping families intact—rather than trying to turn churches into sign-up centers for welfare programs and mouthpieces for the first lady’s organic food agenda.

Meghan Clyne is the managing editor of National Affairs.

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