- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 20, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Lost in the sideshow over the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s ungodly digs about Sen. Barack Obama’s anatomy is the more substantive issue of government-funded faith-based initiatives.

Unproductive arguments about Mr. Jackson’s envy or irrelevance could persist for days while a growing number of indigent and incapacitated Americans seek relief from an increasingly cash-strapped, overburdened social services network that includes countless houses of worship.

Donald W. Mathis, president and CEO of Community Action Partnership, which represents 1,000 social-services providers nationwide, recalls his early days as a social worker helping to operate a Head Start preschool program out of a Catholic church basement.

The faith-based initiative has the potential for a significant effect on the presidential election, particularly among younger faith voters, he suggests. They are more interested in poverty, AIDS and addiction than certain conservative wedge issues, such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

However, Mr. Mathis said the focus on the faith-based initiative, in terms of its political implications and the church-versus-state contentions, misses the point about those folks in need.

“There are a lot of people hurting … and we can’t waste one person,” says Mr. Mathis. If churches can present track records proving their ability to provide social services, “then so be it,” he says.

Not so fast, contend critics like the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Churches should realize that they need “to use voluntary sources of money, not government funds to go out and do missions in their community that they think are important,” Mr. Lynn said in a televised interview.

In voicing their concerns about religious groups using government funds to promote their beliefs and activities, some point to the issue of fairness in what Mr. Mathis describes as the “cutthroat business” of securing grants.

Christianity Today reported that the “White House estimates that faith-based and community organizations have received $7.5 billion in government grants since 2003, while secular nonprofits have received $25 billion.”

If taxpayer dollars fund nongovernmental agencies providing health care, day care, job training, shelter and food, why bar religious organizations from competing for those same charitable dollars to offer similar programs?

They should not be barred, says Mr. Obama, following the precedent of President Bush.

The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee took a page right out of the Bush political playbook when he announced earlier this month that he intends not only to extend the controversial program, but expand it, albeit with restrictions and safeguards, if he is elected.

Publicly professing his love of Christ in Ohio, a blue-collar state he lost in the primaries, Mr. Obama said his Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships would be the “moral central” for his administration because the nation’s social problems are too big for government to solve.

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