Let’s Drop The Euphemistic Phrase “Faith-Based” Already February 5, 2009

Let’s Drop The Euphemistic Phrase “Faith-Based” Already

Hey everyone, Ron Gold here:

When I hear President Obama talk about his plans to beef up the office of faith-based initiatives, it irritates me twofold. First of all, as an atheist, it’s only natural that religious groups receiving federal funding would bother me. But additionally, the very words “faith-based” get to me, as they are intentionally misleading. We should call them what they really are: religious-based initiatives.

These days, it seems that very few Americans mind the massive rip that “faith-based” initiatives have put into the separation of church and state. But this wasn’t always the case. Back in 2001 when President Bush created the original office of faith-based initiatives, this was a much more contentious issue, as many were not yet complacent with the government being so cozy with religion. So to dampen the controversy, the Bush administration did what they did best and created a euphemism — remember, these are also the people who gave us “enhanced interrogation techniques” — and the phrase “faith-based” was born.

I know many of you might be thinking that there is little difference between “faith-based” and “religious-based.” It’s true that the differences are subtle, but they are significant.

To begin with, “religion” can have many negative connotations, while the word “faith” usually gives off vibes that are non-threatening, if not cool. Think of it this way: a lot of individuals like to fancy themselves as “people of faith” or as “spiritual but not religious.” However, bad people are never described in this manner. Osama bin Laden, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and fanatical abortion clinic bombers could all accurately be described as people of faith, but you would never hear that; instead, they are religious extremists.

Also, the term “faith-based” is so vague that its meaning would be ambiguous if you had never heard it used before. For instance, even a non-believer like me uses the word “faith” occasionally, as in “I had faith that the Steelers would win the Super Bowl.” On the other hand, if they were called “religious-based” initiatives, it would be more difficult to disguise their unconstitutionality. After all, the start of the First Amendment reads “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” but as I’m sure the Bush administration realized, the Constitution says nothing about faith.

Mr. Obama, I know that you’re not about to abandon your plans for the new office of faith-based initiatives, but please, just once, could you say “religious-based” initiatives instead?

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  • Obama is just hung up on the Unity thing. He doesn’t want to make anyone mad–especially the 18-35s who got him elected–who probably are all atheists. He’ll never say religious, too afraid of being unpopular.

  • Boletus

    I wonder if we have David Frum to thank for this particular phrase too? Anybody know?

  • Eris

    We could also go the other route instead, or in addition. We could start talking about “faith-based fanatics”, “faith-based extremists”, and “faith-based terrorists”.

  • Steve

    I really don’t mind if the federal government gives money to faith-based groups so long as I can get in on the action.

    I have faith in magic of the “wizards and dragons” variety. I cast fireballs that only I can see and control demons. I have cooler magical armor than even the Catholics have access to.

    Oh, yeah! I gotta get me some o’ that fat gub’ment largesse!!

  • Scott

    From what I have read/heard about the way the office does business, “Christian-based initiatives” is the only truly accurate name for it.

  • Ben Finney

    > please, just once, could you say “religious-based” initiatives instead?

    I hope not. Barack Obama seems quite well-educated, and presumably his writers want him to continue sounding that way. So saying something ungrammatical would be a backward step.

    The sentiment is good, though: I really would like him to refer to “religion-based” things instead.

  • I’m pretty uneasy about the whole deal myself, but I was somewhat mollified after seeing Obama’s comments at the national prayer breakfast. He not only pointed out that the initiative also includes secular groups and he even had a shout out to non-believers and Humanists!

    The goal of this office will not be to favor one religious group over another – or even religious groups over secular groups. It will simply be to work on behalf of those organizations that want to work on behalf of our communities, and to do so without blurring the line that our founders wisely drew between church and state.

    There is no doubt that the very nature of faith means that some of our beliefs will never be the same. We read from different texts. We follow different edicts. We subscribe to different accounts of how we came to be here and where we’re going next – and some subscribe to no faith at all

    We know too that whatever our differences, there is one law that binds all great religions together. Jesus told us to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” The Torah commands, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.” In Islam, there is a hadith that reads “None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.” And the same is true for Buddhists and Hindus; for followers of Confucius and for humanists. It is, of course, the Golden Rule – the call to love one another; to understand one another; to treat with dignity and respect those with whom we share a brief moment on this Earth.

    He even mentioned the A-word, telling folks his father was an Atheist, and that he was raised in a “non-religious household”. It’s a good start, I think.

  • We just have to work on changing the way the word ‘faith’ is perceived. To me it means something along the lines of gullibility, wilful ignorance and laziness. Now if we can just get that across to the population at large…

  • cl


    “…as an atheist, it’s only natural that religious groups receiving federal funding would bother me.”

    I’m no atheist, and it bothers me too.

    “…remember, these are also the people who gave us “enhanced interrogation techniques”…”

    Good point. See that pile of poop? It’s not really poop. It’s actually colorful, biological matter with a unique odor, hence useful for all sorts of things.

    “It’s true that the differences are subtle, but they are significant.”

    Not significant enough to spend tax money on religion, IMO.

    Good post, though. Always encouraging when I can agree with an atheist on anything.


    BTW, I LOVE that your comments interface allows a 5 minute editing window. More blogs need this!

  • Dallas

    Thanks to Ron Gold for this excellent piece and to Ben Finney for the “religion-based” correction.

  • Steve

    “God based” is more poignant.

  • I think you have an interesting point about “faith-based” being euphemistic; and I’m not a huge fan of faith based initiatives either, though as a religious person my concern is as much for the corruption of the church by the state as vice versa.

    Nonetheless, I agree with Claudia that some of Obama’s comments were encouraging. I really liked how he pointed to universal principles like “love your neighbor” that do in fact bind together most religions as well as humanists and the non-religious. I’m glad we have a leader who chooses to focus more on bringing people together on those ideals we share in common and using them to call us all to action for the common good, rather than scoring points and picking fights by dwelling on our differences.

  • Daniel H.

    I have a hard time getting riled up about this when there’s a much more glaring and harmful euphemism being bandied around, “Women’s Rights”. That term is misleading, because it only refers to women who have reached a certain level of physical development, and the “right” leaves no rights at all for the weaker party (the baby).

    Drop that one, and we’ll discuss dropping “faith-based.”

  • Thank you, FriendlyAtheist, for making me feel a little less like throwing up after reading the recent article on Obama’s Faith Based initiatives. I was mad at Obama, who I am a big supporter of, but now I feel better and don’t want to scream at him. I can always count on coming here and reading the words of reasonable people when I feel like throwing my atheist ass out a window.

  • SarahH

    I always want to call shenanigans on the entire euphemism party. The people who like to use the “spiritual-but-not-religious” phrase are trying to wiggle out of having objections to religion apply to them, specifically, more often than not. “Oh, yeah, those church people are crazy, but not me!”

    They might as well be saying, in the immortal words of Michael Scott: “I’m not superstitious… but I am a little stitious.”

    You might have supernatural beliefs that aren’t religious-based, but that doesn’t make those beliefs any more rational or helpful or worthy of respect and government funding. You might not go to church, but that doesn’t mean that your claims to spiritual knowledge are somehow less absurd.

    If we were really calling it like it is, we’d call it “church-based” initiatives. But since there might be the occasional temple, mosque or coven out there with a soup kitchen out back, we can’t and shouldn’t, I suppose. Still, I guess I’m ranting out an agreement here: “religion-based” is more honest and accurate than “faith-based” IMO.

  • Vystrix Nexoth

    Daniel H: The pro-life position gives the fetus ownership over the woman’s body; or rather, it gives other people ownership over the woman’s body by way of the fetus. A woman has the right to bodily autonomy and self-ownership, by virtue of being human: she is a person first and a woman second.

    The pro-life position takes away women’s rights, therefore the term “women’s rights” is very appropriate, not a euphemism at all.

  • Okay, lots of fascinating comments, but I hope we all agree that grammar trumps everything. So should it be religion-based and not religious-based? According to my hasty research, they’re both right, and can both found in multiple publications.

    Case in point: this is the first paragraph of a New York Times article:

    With an eye toward courting evangelical voters, Senator Barack Obama arrived here on Tuesday to present a plan to expand on President Bush’s program of investing federal money in religious-based initiatives that are intended to fight poverty and perform community aid work.

    So use whichever one sounds best to you. They both beat faith-based.

  • Tony

    I believe the country made it for over 200 years without the Office of Faith Based Initiatives just fine, and I think we would be fine without it. Obama is just catering to the religious groups’ desire for inclusion and power, but it is a very dangerous game he’s playing. I think the country will be at stake, as this becomes a very potent political football over the next few administrations.

  • Daniel H.

    Daniel H: The pro-life position gives the fetus ownership over the woman’s body; or rather, it gives other people ownership over the woman’s body by way of the fetus. A woman has the right to bodily autonomy and self-ownership, by virtue of being human: she is a person first and a woman second.

    That’s like saying that since I have ownership over my body, I can use my hand to pick up a knife and stab someone. “Rights” over your body stop when it involves harming someone else. No matter how you rationalize this, at the end of the day there are severed limbs in a trash bag. You can find pictures online.

    The pro-life position takes away women’s rights, therefore the term “women’s rights” is very appropriate, not a euphemism at all.

    It takes away the rights of the woman who has her limbs chopped off or brain sucked out. Would it bother you more if we used a gun on the baby instead of sterile medical equipment?

  • Christophe Thill

    “Faith-based” is when some people have an irrational belief that it will work.

  • Hear, hear. The particularly galling thing about religious groups getting tax dollars from the government is that they aren’t held to any standards or accounting, as are secular charities. They can discriminate against both staff and clients using their deeply held religious beliefs as an excuse. While there’s lip service about how the monies they’re given aren’t supposed to be used for proselytism or the churches themselves abundant evidence shows that they are. The entire program is wrong, wrong, wrong.

  • Michael

    Let’s call them what they are, Government Approved Religious Programs (GARP’s?). We’ll see who wants to touch that money then.

  • When I heard about this change to the office on NPR, I was rather worried until what the change was was explained.

    Apparently the change to the office has been to (1) explicitly include secular groups and (2) provide an oversight board.

    I’d rather see the office dissolved, but at least it’s better than the way it was – exclusive of secular organizations and handily steered by the Christian groups involved.

    And the administration is apparently also considering ejecting groups which have unfair hiring practices.

    I think the fact that these actions have been positive at all in this particular time slot is impressive, rather than disappointing. The whole capital is fighting over the stimulus bill, and the last thing the administration needs now is a reason to further sunder Congress over something rather less urgent.

    Also, “religious-based” doesn’t make any sense. It’d be either “religion-based” or “religious.”

    ‘Cause, you know, “faith” is a noun and “religious” is an adjective. It’s not “faithful-based,” after all.

    Okay, I’m done being the picky linguist. =P

  • Joanna

    I agree with Michael above. GARP. Call it what it is: Government Approved. Bigger question, is it Government Supported? A seal of approval is nothing substantial to fret about; follow the money instead.

    We should be able to scrutinize this Office…where do the funds come from to run it? This would be the case of a breach to the wall of separation, wouldn’t it? Leakage problem to the structure=unstable wall.

  • I call them “superstition-based” initiatives. That describes what they really are.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    I think we should go in the opposite direction. Since the money will not be given for worship or proselytization (wink, wink) why don’t we call it “charitable activity”? That seems directed more at teh heart of what we are (supposedly) funding. Are secular charitable organizations being excluded from the “faith-based” pile-o-money?

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