Yesterday Obama announced his support for continuing, in modified form, the faith-based initiatives of the Bush administration. Progressive religious leaders, like Jim Wallis, have praised Obama's plan. But predictably, it has taken hits from the religious right for his argument that organizations taking federal funds should not be permitted to discriminate on grounds of religion or use the funds to proselytize. And he has also taken flack from staunch advocates of church-state separation who argue that no religious organization should receive federal support, no matter how worthy its work.
Both sides overdraw their case. To the conservatives: the federal government (and all grantmakers, for that matter) have the right to put strings on the funding that they provide. If you are unwilling to accept the strictures in service of your scriptures, then simply don't take the money. During the Bush administration there have been too many religious groups gorging at the public trough for whom service provision is a thinly-veiled cover for conversion or which are pursuing wholly religious-based programs like abstinence-only sex education that do not serve the public good.
But the church-state absolutists go too far in the other direction. Spend anytime in the inner city and you'll find some of the most effective social service provision coming from faith-based organizations. Churches provide lunches, shelters, anti-substance abuse counseling, and assistance to victims of abuse. Many of the counselors and support personnel employed by these programs are part of the communities they serve. They are knowledgeable--and their neighbors trust them. They know how to reach out to the people. Obama's South Side Chicago is full of effective church-based programs, just as is my neighborhood in Philadelphia.
There is a risk that church-based social programs will compete with or supplant more effective governmental programs. Religious groups should not be the sole or primary providers of social services. Most church groups have the will but not the capacity to address social problems as effective as larger-scale organizations and, dare I say, even the government itself. There are many non-faith based nonprofits that do as good or better a job as their religious counterparts--and they should not suffer government favoritism toward religious groups. And to reiterate a point: all private-sector service providers need to be monitored, regulated, and especially evaluated. This is especially true with groups like church-based social service agencies that might, if left unsupervised, be tempted to use federal money inappropriately. Accountability is key. Regulation matters.
One last church-state point. The U.S. government already provides a massive subsidy to churches, one that dwarfs any amount of money that an Obama administration will provide to faith-based initiatives. That is, of course, the U.S. tax code, which exempts religious organizations from paying taxes and which allows private contributions to churches to be tax deductible. This federal tax expenditure channels billions of dollars into proselytizing efforts, creationism, anti-gay and lesbian programs, and religious fanaticism of every variety. Other than the loosely-enforced IRS provision that churches can lose their tax-exempt status if they engage in political campaigning, there are no checks on what, in effect, you and I are subsidizing through our tax policies. This is a far more problematic aspect of church-state relations than well-regulated, carefully monitored, non-discriminatory religious-based social services like those Obama proposes.