Friday, October 02, 2009

Our Problem With Faith

There is a lively and important conversation, inadequately reported by the general media and scarcely by our newspapers, about faith-based initiatives, the programs sponsored by religious groups to meet crucial social needs that rely to one extent or another on public funding. There is an abundance of terrific material on the subject, thanks to the Brookings Institution and especially the Pew Charitable Trusts. Pew has emerged as the outstanding place for scholarship on religion in the U.S.

The good news is that there is a near consensus that faith-based activities contribute enormously to the public good, need and deserve public funding and the governmental investment yields significant benefits. The bad news is that on the one issue that remains divisive, much of the American Jewish establishment comes out once more as hostile to religion.

During the presidential campaign and even before, Barack Obama strongly endorsed public support of faith-based initiatives. As president, he has followed up on this advocacy with decisive steps. His style, in this matter and elsewhere, departs emphatically from the in-your-face approach to ideology of his predecessor. For sincere reasons and also to give comfort to Evangelicals and others in his core constituency, President Bush constantly underscored his administration’s commitment to religion in the public square. This satisfied the emotional/ideological needs of supporters and also engendered fervid opposition, not all of it from the usual suspects in the anti- religion claque.

For all of the heat generated, faith-based initiatives were about where they were before Mr. Bush arrived at the White House. Prior administrations, notably Bill Clinton’s, were receptive to funding religious groups that provide what can be fairly called public services. Unless we are prepared to sanction the neglect of millions of Americans in need who rely on faith-based initiatives, it is not possible and certainly not wise to bar federal funds to these groups.

In the 2008 campaign, Mr. Obama addressed, as well, the more vexatious issue of hiring, saying that “religious organizations that receive federal dollars cannot discriminate with respect to hiring for government-funded social service programs.” The language was unfortunate and not only because it over-simplified a complex issue. “Discrimination” is not a neutral term; it carries much historical and civil rights baggage and conveys the notion that what is being done is wrong and harmful. The Brookings report notes that “those who favor policies that would allow religious providers to prefer job applicants within their denomination or tradition speak of ‘permitting religious employers to take religion into account.’”

In office, President Obama appears to be waffling on hiring, doubtlessly because the issue is two-sided. This doesn’t sit well with fifty-one organizations, eleven of them Jewish, and they have sent an urgent letter to Attorney General Eric Holder asking him to withdraw the Bush administration ruling that faith-based initiatives receiving federal funds are exempt from civil rights laws and have a free exercise right to show preference in hiring, a claim that is far-fetched from a constitutional standpoint.

The letter, joined in by the ADL which is extremist on the issue, the AJCommittee and Reform and Conservative groups, is silent about the immense public good achieved through the funding of faith-based initiatives. Once more on a key public issue, the AJCongress has taken a moderate position and in a separate letter to Mr. Holder it suggests, albeit obliquely, that some preference in hiring should be permitted.

The constitutional and civil rights purists in our midst are comfortable with a double-standard, at once opposing preference in hiring by agencies using public funds to provide secular social services while they conveniently turn a blind eye to the reality that the entire Federation network, including hundreds of agencies, could not function without public funding and yet they practice pervasive preference in hiring. Of the more than one-hundred Federations, is there one with a non-Jewish top executive? Is this coincidental?

Our defenders of a faithless faith are also hypocritical. Total separation of church and state is their religion and mantra, as, for example, when they do zealous and even paranoid battle against governmental funding to secular programs in parochial schools. Mum is the word on the more direct support to religion provided through tax exemption to religious institutions and tax deductions for contributions to houses of worship. What promotes religion more, government paying the salary of a science teacher in a parochial school or government encouraging contributions to Reform and Conservative congregations?

The Obama administration will, I believe, eschew an extreme position on hiring. Likely, it will permit faith-based initiatives slack in filling top positions and perhaps also program officers, as long as there isn’t a blanket refusal to hire outside the group. Of course, grant recipients will not be allowed to proselytize. There will be borderline situations, as there are in all of life’s activities and certainly in governmental programs. To play around a bit with Oliver Wendell Holmes’ famous statement, the life of the law is experience, not rigid ideological formulas.

None of this is likely to change our already prolonged war against faith. We are extremists and while this plays well with much of our rank and file who have elided religion from their lives, there is the frightening issue of how our fanatic opposition to religion in the public square will play out down the road on the larger canvas of American life.