During his long run to the White House, then presidential candidate Obama was asked what he planned to do about President Bush’s controversial Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. He told reporters that not only did he intend to keep the office, but intended to expand its reach.
Under President Bush, the office was used to dole out federal dollars to religious institutions to perform social services. Among the issues that made the office controversial was Bush’s unwillingness to insist that religious groups refrain from sectarian religious activity in conjunction with their social services. This has been the norm for all the years that religious groups have received tax money for various activities.
But for President Bush the religious component is what made the effort worthwhile. Efforts to heal addictions or overcome domestic abuse or provide job training or offer counseling for a variety of maladies is apparently more effective in conjunction with a particular view of God. And maybe from the vantage point of the person receiving the help, the idea that God is involved does make it more effective.
Unfortunately, once we get God involved we get crossed up with the U.S. Constitution and that dreaded non-establishment clause. Government cannot be in the business of funding religious activity — directly or indirectly.
Bush’s use of the office was also controversial because most of the recipients were Christian groups. If we decide that government can use religious institutions as social service providers, then access to that money must be equally available to all authentic faith groups — Christian or otherwise.
When Obama as candidate promised to expand the reach of the office, opening it to other religious groups was exactly what he had in mind.
One of the stickiest controversies surrounding faith groups receiving tax dollars is the proclivity of religious groups to hire people who believe what the group believes. We really can’t expect some Christian social service provider to hire therapists who do not believe in God.
But that amounts to discrimination. And it is against the law to discriminate on the basis of religion when federal money is being used to meet payroll.
Advocates for strict separation of church and state are hopeful that President Obama will forbid groups from hiring only those who embrace a certain creed. Faith groups, and especially evangelicals, are fearful that the new president will bind their hands, forcing them to hire the most qualified candidates regardless of what they believe.
When asked about this dilemma recently, the president punted. Instead of articulating a hiring policy consistent with existing federal law, President Obama formed an advisory council to review each instance as it comes up. In other words, hiring issues will be handled on a case-by-case basis — a plan sure to clog the courts with more faith-based law suits.
For my part the office could simply go away. If we want to spend money to help people, then create the Office of Helping People in America, and then go do it. The work is not going to be any more effective if it is done under the auspices of a church or any less effective because it is being done by secular professionals.
Because if it’s God we are worried about offending, I am pretty sure that God wants needy people to find their way to wholeness regardless of whose name is on the office door.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.