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Obama's Faith-Based Reform

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By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, July 4, 2008

Barack Obama keeps trying to end the wars over culture and religion, and good for him. The 1960s are so 40 years ago. But Obama's opponents, as well as some of his friends, won't let him do it.

His latest foray is on a subject dear to my heart: the effort to find constitutional ways to build partnerships between government and faith-based groups doing essential work for the poor and the marginalized.

The outline Obama offered Tuesday suggests that he wants to learn from President Bush's failures in this area, not simply reject an idea because it has Bush's name on it.

And give Obama points for acknowledging how hard it is to find the right balance between avoiding excessive entanglement of government with religion on the one hand and respecting the identity of religious charities on the other. "Some of these questions are difficult," he said in an interview, "and I don't have them all worked out."

The truth is that government and religious groups have long cooperated on social ventures that posed no threat to religious freedom. Students should be able to get government loans whether they go to Fresno State, Notre Dame or Yeshiva. Religious hospitals get Medicare and Medicaid money.

Moreover, the government has had partnerships for many years with Catholic Charities, Lutheran Services, the Jewish Federations and other religious groups. And why not? If the religious charities disappeared, both the poor and the taxpayers would be in a lot of trouble.

Unfortunately, while Bush loved to talk about the "armies of compassion," he did not put much money or muscle behind a domestic compassion agenda. As David Kuo, former deputy director of Bush's White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, wrote in 2005: "From tax cuts to Medicare, the White House gets what the White House really wants. It never really wanted the 'poor people stuff.' "

In suggesting that the faith-based policy be mended but not ended, Obama starts with the right reforms. "There was a lot of political and partisan decision making in the office," he told me. He wants his faith-based agency "working with everybody," and clear measures, applied equally, to guarantee "high standards" in both secular and religious programs.

Under Bush, he said, "you took resources from some programs and gave them to others without clear criteria for why the funds were shifted." Obama would emphasize using large groups such as Catholic Charities "to train smaller organizations that are doing good work" in the ways of applying for and administering government funds.

There is a cosmetic quality to some of the changes Obama proposes, including his desire to rename the office as the "Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships." Still, his use of the word "partnerships" points in the right direction by stressing that support for religious groups can't be an excuse for government backing out of its responsibilities.

Bush's effort was plagued by a liberal-conservative battle over hiring discrimination within faith-based programs, particularly on the question of sexual orientation. Obama would keep the religious exemption from federal civil rights laws for congregations but apply them to specific programs sponsored by the congregations that accepted federal money. There is no federal law against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. But there are some local laws, and Obama says that religious groups taking federal funds would have to abide by these.

"I realize this is going to be a sensitive issue in some circumstances -- in very narrow circumstances, I think," Obama said.

Culture warriors who would prefer a fight rather than a consensus on how to do well by those who do good may be eager to battle on this narrow issue. But this would be a case of misplaced priorities. With his faith-based proposal, at least, Obama is living up to his promise to cut through partisanship and ideology.

Since everything in a campaign is seen through a political lens, Obama's plan is being read as part of his effort to reach religious voters. Obama replies that he has a long history of working with religious organizations, which is true, but he makes no bones about trying to win new allies.

"I certainly think that there's greater openness among evangelical leaders to begin discussions with Democrats and listening to viewpoints that are not narrowly defined by the religious right," he said. "That's particularly true of younger evangelicals."

Yes, seeking peace in the culture war is in Obama's interest. But does that make ending it a bad thing?

postchat@aol.com


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