Barack Obama did a smart thing today. He visited my hometown and he went there to talk about faith. He knows that he needs to win Ohio. And he knows exactly where he needs to go to help facilitate that victory. He went to the Eastside Community Ministry to talk about his support for faith-based initiatives in government anti-poverty programs. Here’s the text of that speech and here is a link to his plan for a faith-based initiative.
As I read through his remarks in Zanesville, I was struck by a couple of things. First, he wants to distinguish his faith-based initiative from that of his predecessor. He does this in the following way:
Second, his faith-based initiative seems less a way to help these groups to do their jobs than a way to get them dependent on government in order to do what they’re already doing. And, of course, this means that his sort of folks can direct what it is that these groups do (because, after all, you can’t expect people who "cling" to God and guns to know anything about helping the needy):
Well, I still believe it’s a good idea to have a partnership between the White House and grassroots groups, both faith-based and secular. But it has to be a real partnership – not a photo-op. That’s what it will be when I’m President. I’ll establish a new Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The new name will reflect a new commitment. This Council will not just be another name on the White House organization chart – it will be a critical part of my administration.
First, 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. Second, federal dollars that go directly to churches, temples, and mosques can only be used on secular programs. And we’ll also ensure that taxpayer dollars only go to those programs that actually work.The takeaway line from this story today is Obama’s call for "all hands on deck." I’ve heard this repeated all day on radio and t.v. news. But the full context of that quote is this:
You see, while these groups are often made up of folks who’ve come together around a common faith, they’re usually working to help people of all faiths or of no faith at all. And they’re particularly well-placed to offer help. As I’ve said many times, I believe that change comes not from the top-down, but from the bottom-up, and few are closer to the people than our churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques.This is, rhetorically, very smart and it has had the desired effect. He’s doing what Bush should have done about the war. He’s explaining why the American people are needed to help in the effort--except Obama’s "effort" is "saving our planet" and "ending poverty." (Hey, at least he’s ambitious!) This flatters people who, naturally, love their country and want to be a part of something good and larger than themselves. But the fact is that Obama’s call for "all hands on deck" is telling. A captain orders all hands on deck not because he feels they have some new insights to offer on swabbing it. He calls them up top to work according to his will. This is what Obama’s faith based initiative appears to offer too. Groups will have to agree to be secular and "non-discriminatory" even in their hiring . . . so Catholic Charities could not, I presume, require that their efforts be led by a Catholic? They will not be permitted to proselytize? And what will we call "proselytizing"? Could it be that even a conversation about Jesus might cause a group to lose its funding? And God-forbid we suggest that these groups do a better job at lifting people up (because they do). Suggesting that might put the Democratic party out of business.
That’s why Washington needs to draw on them. The fact is, the challenges we face today – from saving our planet to ending poverty – are simply too big for government to solve alone. We need all hands on deck.
I’m not saying that faith-based groups are an alternative to government or secular nonprofits. And I’m not saying that they’re somehow better at lifting people up. What I’m saying is that we all have to work together – Christian and Jew, Hindu and Muslim; believer and non-believer alike – to meet the challenges of the 21st century.