By Larry Jones
"In an ideal world, there would be no faith-based office," says the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "But if we must have this office, certain steps must be taken to bring it into line with the commands of the Constitution."
I agree that churches should finance their own social service programs and the government should fund secular groups doing service work to those in special need.
The office Lynn refers to is President Barack Obama’s Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood
Partnerships, greatly expanded and strangely Bush-like in certain aspects. The most contentious is whether religious organizations will be allowed to discriminate in hiring people with whose lifestyle they disagree, as was the case under George W. Bush.
During his campaign in Ohio last July Obama said that “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.” To fulfill that promise Obama would have to reverse Bush’s 2002 executive order allowing employment discrimination by religious organizations which receive federal funds under the program. As of this date, Obama has not done so. Whether he will remains in question, but until he does his campaign promise remains pure electoral posturing.
The President has appointed 15 members of what is expected to be a 25 member advisory council. That group, along with its executive director, Joshua DuBlois, will be asked to refer questionable cases to the White House attorney, Greg Craig, and the Department of Justice for a determination of whether laws have been broken in granting funding to certain religious groups. The executive order says only that White House officials “may” seek Justice Department guidance in questionable cases. “May” means that this “guidance” could well be ignored.
JOSH DUBOIS AND THE ADVISORY COUNCIL
Joshua DuBois, 26, will carry a great deal of weight in the Obama administration on faith-based issues. His stepfather is an itinerant minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, has a history of civil rights activism and has been an Obama advisor since his race for the Senate in Illinois. At age 19, without benefit of formal theological schooling, he became assistant pastor of a small church called Calvary Praise & Worship Center in Cambridge which is affiliated with the United Pentecostal Council of the Assemblies of God, a small, predominantly African-American denomination. What his personal religious views are has not yet been made public, at least not by the media, but his background does not scream “left liberal” or even “progressive.”
DuBois became Obama’s presidential campaign point man for developing outreach to the religious community. In the process he became well acquainted with a number of religious types, including many rock-ribbed conservatives, some of whom are now on the advisory council. They include people like Frank C. Page, past president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Page is joined in his anti-gay and anti-abortion positions by Father Larry Snyder, head of Catholic Charities, Arturo Chavez of the Catholic supported Mexican American Cultural Center, and Richard Stearns, president of World Vision. Stearns has said that if the Bush order allowing discrimination in hiring is revoked by Obama, World Vision would withdraw from the program.
There is one openly gay man, the Rev. Fred Davie, a Presbyterian minister and President of Public-Private Ventures, a national nonprofit seeking to improve the effectiveness of social policies and programs. And there is the very progressive woman, Vashti M. McKenzie, a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. She relies on “womanist” theology in her pursuit of gender equity and had made the following poignant statement:
“The country as a whole has been engaged in selective morality…And so in doing that, we have a great polarization. And so we have decided, then, that gay and lesbian unions, that's immoral, but a pre-emptive strike against a government, looking for weapons of mass destruction and becoming a weapon of mass destruction, that's not immoral…So I think we're engaging in selective moralization, and those who are at the bottom of the ladder are still at the bottom of the ladder.”
Eboo S. Patel, founder and executive director of Interfaith Youth Corps, is an Indian-American Muslim, who is the only non-Christian person on the advisory council, except perhaps for some of the leaders of secular organizations whose religion is not published.
In addition to the progressive Reformed Rabbi David Saperstein, there are the middle of the roaders like Jim Wallis of Sojourners, who tries to straddle the line between evangelical religion and progressive social policy, as well as others on the council. The council is very over-balanced by eleven men with only four women to date. Obama has locked himself into a conundrum trying to please both religious people on the right and those on the left, and the discrimination in hiring issue may lead to a real schism in his attempt to be all things to all religious people.
Again trying to get agreement among those who strongly disagree, Obama is emphasizing abortion reduction rather than full reproductive rights to women, including the right to abortion on demand. That way, Obama hopes the rabid anti-abortionists (please don’t call them pro-life) will join in with pro-choice people on a program both think is important. But abortion should not be considered a religious issue because it is an issue of women’s control over their own lives, and a public health issue. For pro-choice secular people, it is ridiculous to debate whether human personhood begins at conception or at some later point. That is a faith issue, not a public health issue, and as such has no placed in government decisions or laws.
In any event, so far there is no representative of such organizations as Planned Parenthood on the advisory council. People argue that churches should be funded to do social service work because “they are closest to the problems in their area.” Such reasoning should then be applied to abortion providers or those who give information about abortion availability. They are closest to this public health issue, so where are these people in Obama’s decision making structure? As religion columnist Sarah Posner put it, “Claiming that it is going to find common ground on the abortion question is a little like inviting only the cheerleading squad to your party and claiming you're not being cliquish.”
As yet, Obama has not rescinded “The Mexico City Policy” also known as the Global Gag Rule by critics, which prohibits all federally funded NGOs from performing abortions in other countries. It was in place from 1984 until 1993, and reinstituted by Bush in 2001. Under the policy, federally funded NGOs must pledge that they will “neither perform nor actively promote abortion as a method of family planning in other nations,” except in rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother. See http://www.cbn.com/CBNnews/526111.aspx
It has been proffered by some that he did not want to do that on the same day as the big demonstration against abortion and cause friction, heaven forbid!! Whether he will do so in the future remains to be seen and we should do everything that we can to see that he does.
PRAYER BREAKFAST POLITICS
Obama chose the National Prayer Breakfast to make his announcement about his Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. He either is ignorant of who organizes these annual prayer breakfasts, which is very hard to believe, or else he is comfortable with making a political/religious announcement at an event organized by “the most powerful fundamentalist group you’ve never heard of,” as people say after reading Jeff Sharlet’s book “The Family: the Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power.” (See my review of his revealing book).
The Family is a radical right religious movement which worships a very powerful/vengeful Jesus, not the one who is reported to have said, “Blessed are the meek.” It has strong ties with many congressional leaders as well as foreign leaders, including some notorious despots. It is certainly not an organization Obama, or any thinking person, should be part of. Now Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was for some time part of one of their prayer circles when she was first lady to Bill
The religion-related structure Obama has set up looks like a strange mixture of people with widely variant convictions and one would wish to be a fly on the wall at their meetings as they try to reach “common ground,” But how do you reach common ground when one side has truth and the other prejudice? The advisory council has Christians and one Muslim, but no Hindus or Buddhists, or any of the other religions in America, or non-believers which Obama talked about in his inaugural speech.
The truth is that Obama needed religious voters, especially some evangelical voters, to win the election, and now he’s stuck with trying to please them all. He cannot do that and still please the large youth contingency he developed, most of whom probably couldn’t care less about religious disagreements. Nor can he do that anymore than he can please people who thought he was an anti-war candidate who are now watching him prosecute two wars which are both headed for disaster.
While many of Obama’s supporters are friends of World Can’t Wait, it is becoming increasingly clear to many of them that this is not the change that we can really believe in.