Why This Atheist Supports Obama's Faith Based Initiative
by Saintcog, Wed Jul 02, 2008 at 07:23:39 AM EDT
Granted, I'm not your typical atheist. I received an M.A. from a Divinity School and spent three years working on a Ph.D. in New Testament studies. So perhaps all of this exposure to Christianity has corrupted the purity of my secular allegiances. Perhaps the unreason of religious faith has crept into my mind and skewed my understanding of the secular state supported by Jefferson's famous "Wall of Separation" interpretation of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. Or maybe I'm some fanatic devotee of the Almighty Obama, who will happily cast aside any and all principle to spread the Gospel of my political Messiah.
Or perhaps I have taken the reason-based principles of secular worldviews to their logical end by resisting the kneejerk response of rejecting everything that has a basis in, or an association with, religion. Perhaps I have reached the rational conclusion that religious institutions and communities have helped more people in need than any well written, thoughtful, and compelling treatise that persuasively argues against the existence of God.
And maybe I have come to believe that even though two things must remain constitutionally and legally separate, that does not mean they cannot work in tandem towards a common goal.
Let me begin by encouraging all liberals to rediscover their religious roots. Especially all you Bleeding Heart Liberals. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the origin of this term, "bleeding heart liberal" was first printed by a journalist in the 1930s, and was (and still is) typically used to describe anyone who is overly sympathetic to the plight of impoverished and downtrodden people. The "bleeding heart" part of the epithet alludes to a symbol used in Christian imagery and iconography, where a heart wrapped in a crown of thorns is depicted bleeding in the chest of Mary or Jesus. Thus, a bleeding heart liberal is someone whose concern for the poor rivals that of Jesus and Mary.
So next time you hear a fundamentalist (or any politically conservative Christian) use the term "bleeding heart" in a derogatory fashion, first enjoy the ridiculous irony of the moment. Then ask this unfortunately confused person why he or she has such a problem with Jesus.
This brings me to that bleeding heart liberal running for president. And make no mistake, despite whatever posturing Senator Obama has made towards the political center in recent weeks, the man's heart bleeds as much as that of anyone here who would sooner blog the entire day about FISA than actually get out there and help someone in need.
It is unnecessary to rehash in detail Senator Obama's experience as a community organizer. But perhaps it bears emphasizing that all of this community work that he did for years, assisting those less fortunate than most of us, was through the Developing Communities Project - a church-based endeavor. This brings me to my confidence in Senator Obama's faith based initiatives.
Unlike Bush, who simply saw an opportunity to inject religion into public life with his faith based initiatives, thereby solidifying and energizing the evangelical wing of the party, Senator Obama understands first hand what church-based community activism can accomplish and, more importantly, HOW it gets accomplished. Simply put, he is proposing a solution for a problem, which all liberals and progressives want to see resolved, in a manner that he knows from experience is effective. It just so happens that this method involves the participation of churches.
OK, so what's the problem here? Well, there are several potential problems with any initiative that involves funneling tax dollars to religious institutions.
First, let's deal with the general church-state issue. I do believe that the founding fathers intended for our country to be governed by a secular state. The lack of any mention whatsoever of religion or God in the constitution, except to state that Congress should not be in the business of establishing religion, is revealing this regard. The mention of a Creator in reference to all men being created equal in the Declaration of Independence was more of a political jab at the divine right of kings espoused by the British Monarchy than a theologically significant statement of faith.
Having said that, I don't believe that "secular" means that the government cannot have any association with religion whatsoever. Secular simply means non-religious. It does not mean anti-religious, nor does it entail the rejection of religion. This means that the government cannot and should not promote any particular religious faith or creed, or promote any religious institution in a religious capacity. It does not mean that the government is forbidden from working with religious institutions in order to achieve secular goals (e.g., feeding hungry people).
Second, there is the issue of hiring and firing. Can religious organizations that receive public money discriminate on the basis of faith when making these decisions? This has been my biggest objection to Bush's faith based initiative, and there is some ambiguity over Obama's stance on this as reported by the press:
The Associated Press initially reported Obama supports "their (faith-based organizations') ability to hire and fire based on faith." NBC reports the campaign says Obama's plan would prevent organizations from discriminating based on faith. The Associated Press changed its wording to say, "some ability to hire and fire based on faith." The campaign says this second version is still inaccurate.
As it stands from this bizarrely confusing account, it appears that Obama's stance will be that discrimination on the basis of religious belief for hiring and firing will not be permitted. If this is the case, then my concerns are put to rest on this score.
Third, how will we ensure that these monies are not used to subsidize proselytizing and evangelical missions? For example, suppose a church usually generates $10,000 in revenue on its own for community based projects. It then usually divides the money in half, $5,000 to help poor people through a food pantry/soup kitchen and $5,000 for proselytizing missions. What is to prevent the church from receiving $5,000 in tax payer funds and using that money for poverty programs, while reserving the full $10,000 of its own money for proselytizing? This would effectively result in the government funding religious proselytizing. I have not heard this problem addressed yet, and it remains my only real concern over this proposal.
But even if this last concern is not addressed to my satisfaction, and some churches increase their missionary activity because of government money, I will still offer my full throated support for these faith based initiatives, provided that on balance it offers substantial assistance to those who need it. Some of us have the luxury of getting all worked up about the nuances and constitutional grey areas pertaining to the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Others couldn't care less whether it was Jesus, Krishna, Uncle Sam, or all three working together who provided that hot bowl of soup. I have a very difficult time sympathizing with the former group when the latter are so numerous...bleeding heart liberal that I am.