- The Washington Times - Monday, February 9, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Sometimes it’s best to simply let sleeping dogs lie. We certainly think so when it comes to the faith-based programs established by George W. Bush and now under scrutiny by Barack Obama.

Last week the new president began to expand and reconstitute the programs, signing an executive order creating the White House Office on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, appointing Pentecostal minister Joshua DuBois to head the office, and assigning 25 religious and secular leaders to a new advisory board.

He faces the challenge of trying to uphold and reconcile two seemingly conflicting campaign pledges — one a promise to secular groups (who dislike faith-based initiatives as a means of providing social services) that taxpayer funds would not be used for religious evangelism; and the other promise to religious organizations, who anticipate a greater role in the new administration, even one far surpassing that of previous Democratic presidents. He must therefore, like Ulysses, steer between Scylla and Charybdis, the two mighty sea monsters of Greek mythology. Can helmsman Obama do it?

These two pledges clash over the question of how federal funds can - and should - be administered to faith-based groups. If the American taxpayer foots the bill, is every organization that receives federal funding obliged to hire its personnel without any regard for religion or sexual preference, for example?

Certainly many secularists - and many who advocate for strict separation between church and state - think so. Yet religious organizations are crying foul: How can they be expected to change their bylaws and their very character in order to receive federal funds to help those in need? For many such groups, religious convictions are indeed key determinants of membership in the organization. Mr. Obama promised to fix this “problem” on the campaign trail. He would do well to recognize that it isn’t a problem at all. The only “problem” was his use of incendiary rhetoric in an attempt to falsely malign Mr. Bush in order to score political points and get elected.

The president insists the funds that faith-based groups will receive must be used for secular purposes only, such as feeding the hungry or housing the homeless. But it is almost impossible to ensure that as these organizations render such services their members will not evangelize, or be perceived as doing so. Even disregarding missionaries and zealous advocates of the faith, these organizations are staffed by many who see the ultimate (if not only) solution to many social problems as being rooted in a lack of transcendental values. And rightly so, we might add, in many cases.

Furthermore, Mr. Obama pledged on the campaign trail that religious groups can hire and fire as they please - but only if they rely exclusively on private funds. If this is turned into a policy, it completely undermines the concept of faith-based social services having a multiplier effect on care-giving and charitable operations (which, by the way, these organizations can often do more effectively and efficiently than many governmental or secular organizations); the entities become mere extensions of the federal bureaucracy. And we all know how effective those have been in correcting America’s social ills.

All organizations - both secular and religious - ought to be able to compete for government grants on an equal footing and be able to hire and fire according to their own bylaws. In practice, it works well, as most people gravitate to the organizations that share their convictions. Mr. Bush wisely signed a series of executive orders in his first term exempting religious organizations from nondiscrimination laws, recognizing that doing so is vital to another concept dear to the nation - the right to worship and assemble however and with whomever each citizen pleases, even in the execution of charity, which is in itself a religious obligation. Mr. Bush was essentially tipping the scales toward greater freedom and equality for all religious organizations in reaction to the unceasing secularist zeal to eradicate every last vestige of religion from American soil.

Hence, in this case, at this juncture in our history, less is more. Mr. Obama should realize that he only has two viable options: Allow Mr. Bush’s rules to stand, or ditch the system altogether. He is better off leaving the structure Mr. Bush created mostly as it is - while making minor adjustments - since the state clearly needs help to minister to all of America’s social needs. Too bad Mr. Obama didn’t grasp while he was campaigning that sometimes silence can be golden.

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