The Problem(s) with Faith-Based Initiatives February 28, 2009

The Problem(s) with Faith-Based Initiatives

Susan Jacoby, author of The Age of American Unreason and Freethinkers, explains the history and problems with the faith-based initiatives in today’s edition of The New York Times.

President Obama has only blurred the lines between church and state even more.

The fact is that many people served by these projects — including children with absent fathers, addicts and prisoners — form a captive audience. It cannot be easy to say no to a proselytizer if saying yes means a warm bed in a homeless shelter, extra help for a child or more privileges while serving jail time. Embrace Jesus as your savior and, who knows, you may get early parole.

Back in 2003, there was a flurry of excitement surrounding a study that at first glance seemed to suggest that participants in Mr. Colson’s prison programs in Texas had been rearrested at much lower rates than other released prisoners. There was just one problem: the study excluded everyone who quit the program in prison — two-thirds of the starting group. It is as if the Department of Education were to measure the success of public schools by not counting dropouts. This ought to give pause to Mr. Obama, who has spoken so often about restoring evidence and science to public policy-making.

… we are moving blindly ahead with faith-based federal spending as if it were not a radical break with our past. If faith-based initiatives, first institutionalized by the executive fiat of a conservative Republican president, become even more entrenched under a liberal Democratic administration, there will be no going back. In place of the First Amendment, we will have a sacred cash cow.

For all the lip-service Obama has given us, it’s all undermined if he not only allows money to be given strictly to religious groups, but also if they can discriminate in hiring and proselytize with the funding.

Right now, as Jacoby points out, his faith-based team headed by Pentecostal minister Josh DuBois has said they will handle these issues on a case-by-case basis. I hope liberals remain vigilant and get vocal the moment they slip up and allow a religious group to misuse the money.

For a Constitutional scholar such as himself, it’d be nice to see Obama match his words with some real action and keep religion out of politics as it should be.

The faith-based programs need to come to an end.

(Thanks to Joe for the link!)

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  • Miko

    Under Bush, the biggest problem was the lack of accounting: we really didn’t have a clue how the churches were spending the money, both since the legal requirements for reporting were so lax and since many churches weren’t even meeting that pathetically low standard. So far, Obama doesn’t seem to intend to change these standards. So, I’m not so sure we’ll even know whether religious groups are misusing the money or not.

    Incidentally, it’s worth pointing out that you have some of the same problems (without the church-state connections) under a secular-but-government-run program. I sometimes feel that our anti-poverty programs are in fact anti-poor-people, since they seem designed to gain authoritarian control over the poor through bribes (e.g., you can use food stamp money to buy tomatoes but not to buy a tomato plant, you need to report all work and certain jobs can jeopardize welfare status thus creating a poverty trap, etc.). Seeing as the U.S. currently spends more than $50,000 per welfare recipient (and clearly no where near that much is actually getting to the recipients themselves), the faith-based initiative is just the latest example of corruption in an industry designed to help sinecure-seeking bureaucrats while hiding behind the noble illusion of helping the poor.

  • I was writing a long-winded comment explaining that Colson’s InnerChange programs predate the OFBCI, and looking up the wording the Bush administration used to restrict FBOs from using Federal funding for proselytization, and explaining that InnerChange certainly doesn’t legally qualify for such funding, when I noticed a few paragraphs down in the Wikipedia article that District Judge Robert W. Pratt had made the very same complaint in 2006 about the OFBCI funding that InnerChange is receiving.

    “For all practical purposes,” Judge Pratt said, “the state has literally established an Evangelical Christian congregation within the walls of one its penal institutions, giving the leaders of that congregation, i.e., InnerChange employees, authority to control the spiritual, emotional, and physical lives of hundreds of Iowa inmates.”

    I’m with Miko. The OFBCI was set up with all the wording it needed to prevent abusive FBOs from getting their mitts on Federal dosh. What the OFBCI needs now is the teeth to enforce that wording, to give proselytizing programs like Colson’s the boot.

    Obama wants to harness the OFBCI to help soup kitchens and other local community groups establish themselves and keep running, especially through the economic downturn. If the manpower of Church groups can be harnessed to help unfortunate people, I’m all for it. As Matthew Parris said after visiting Africa, “Only the severest kind of secularist could see a mission hospital or school and say the world would be better without it.”

  • MH

    Politicians risk being outflanked by their opponents by appearing soft on hot button issues. For example we had red baiting during the cold war. There’s also the soft on crime label even though no one is pro crime.

    For a generation the Republicans outflanked the Democrats with religious conservatives and now the Democrats are in the “soft on atheism” hole. I imagine this dynamic will be with us for a while. But the slow increase of people of no religion will eventually end this dynamic.


    We’ll never win by arguing that such spending is unpopular or poorly organized. The opposition is way to strong and large.

    Obama is playing to the crowd. Centrist instead of Liberal (On, I forgot, it’s Progressive.) Just as he did to the troops he addressed. It would have been mean spirited to remind troops who have lost lives and limbs that the war was a meaningless, financially dissastrous waste of men/women and money.

    So, the most likely tack is the Evolution/Creationist_Intelligent Design_Hear both sides of arguments people. Use the Consitution to protect our Enlightenment values, not our incorrectly stated original American Christian values.

  • Forkboy

    I have faith that Girl Scout Thin Mint cookies can help me. Will there be a faith-based initiative/group to help me?

  • teammarty

    Personally, I liked the Tagalongs best.

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