By Father Jonathan Morris
FOX News Religion Contributor
It is not the place of the pastor or priest to tell anyone who to vote for, but when politicians propose policy involving faith and morality, clergy have not only the right, but also the special obligation to put these proposals to the test.
Here I go:
You might assume by last week’s headlines Senator Obama has found something in common with Senator McCain and his conservative base: the value of providing government funding to both faith-based and secular social services, as long as they get the job done.
The San Francisco Chronicle: Bush’s Faith-Based Initiative to Remain
U.S. News and World Report: Obama Touts Faith-Based Initiative Plans
The New York Times: Obama Wants to Expand Role of Religious Groups
But click that link, or turn the page, and you will find another story. Not only do the candidates disagree on what to do with the president’s faith-based initiative, their approaches reveal fundamental disparities in their understanding of the Constitution.
Last week Senator Obama went to Zanesville, Ohio to announce his plan to offer federal money to faith-based and neighborhood programs. And what better place to make such a commitment than in America’s Heartland, where the senator once said people cling to guns and religion as a reaction to hard times.
The reaction on the ground and in the mainstream press to Obama’s olive branch embrace of faith-based programs was positive. A Democrat who understands and encourages the religious fiber of the nation! Hoorah! But the loudest liberal voices quickly whooped up an Internet storm accusing Obama of pandering to the religious right and blurring the “wall of separation between church and state”.
To calm the torment, a spokesman for the Obama campaign underlined the unique qualities of Obama’s plan as it compares to the policies of the current White House Office for Faith Based Community Initiatives, which McCain supports.
1) In an Obama administration, the federal government would supervise the hiring process of faith-based groups to make sure they do not give preference to employees who share the faith of the organization.
2) In an Obama administration, the federal government would only give money to “secular programs” of faith-based groups.
In his own words, Senator Obama explains and justifies his reforms in this way:
“Now, make no mistake, as someone who used to teach constitutional law, I believe deeply in the separation of church and state, but I don’t believe this partnership will endanger that idea - so long as we follow a few basic principles. 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.”
As a former professor of constitutional law, Senator Obama surely knows the Constitution says only two things about the federal government’s relation to religion: 1) it should not establish one religion over another 2) congress should pass no law that prohibits its free exercise.
But in the ubiquitous spirit of that phantom Constitutional wall of separation of church and state, Senator Obama promises his administration will discriminate against all faiths, as a way to respect the faith of all. In fact, his plan would whitewash faith-based groups of faith. Imagine what would happen to an after-school program run by an Orthodox Jewish temple that cannot give preference to hiring Orthodox Jewish teachers. The program would cease to exist. Or imagine an Evangelical ministry that helps prisoners reintegrate into society forced to “secularize” its programs in order to receive financial aid.
News Alert: religion is not poison. And it certainly is not the federal government’s role to supervise the religious content of a faith-based program. Its only concern should be the efficacy of the program in producing the desired secular objectives for society’s common good.
Despite constant outcries of organizations like the ACLU, the Supreme Court of the United States has long defended a religious organization’s right to preserve its identity by hiring candidates that share its values. This is not discrimination. Just the opposite is true. If a government office sidelines faith-based groups that have proven themselves effective simply because they refuse to water down their religious identity, this government office is limiting the free exercise of religion and violating our Constitution.
Senator McCain has a long way to go in convincing America that he is religion friendly. But at least he and his campaign are singing the right Constitutional tune. His campaign released the following statement last week:
“John McCain supports faith based initiatives, and recognizes their important role in our communities. He has co-sponsored legislation to foster improved partnerships with community organizations, including faith-based organizations, to assist with substance abuse and violence prevention. He also believes that it is important for faith-based groups to be able to hire people who share their faith, and he disagrees with Senator Obama that hiring at faith-based groups should be subject to government oversight.”
Democrats and Republicans alike should be pleased both party nominees seem to recognize local, faith-based organizations usually do a better job at being a good neighbor than big government programs. I would only hope both candidates’ proposals reflect common sense logic that there is no such thing, in the long-term, as a faithless, faith-based initiative.
Father Jonathan Morris is author of the new book, “The Promise: God’s Purpose and Plan for when Life Hurts”. For information go to www.fatherjonathan.com
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