Author: Aidan Lewis
Controversy over the separation of Church and State will manifest itself in a particularly slippery form this year-President Obama’s Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. A primary concern among liberals is that Obama is blurring the line between two institutions that should be kept separate at all costs. As I see it, allowing the government to work in conjunction with religious organizations is a very wise move; the question is not whether or not their collaboration is unconstitutional, but whether it will be structured in such a way that each institution does not undermine the integrity of the other.
As Republicans and Democrats alike have been quick to point out, Obama is walking a thin line. If he wants to launch an initiative that is both effective and unintrusive, he will have to devote enormous amounts of time and energy to ensuring that the project does not stray from its path. It is a balancing act that will require almost superhuman vigilance. Although, if the initiative is well-constructed and purposeful, it may be worth the effort.
Letting religious organizations head social outreach programs is an excellent idea. They have much more experience with such programs, are able to work with communities on a more direct basis, and present a far less menacing face than the federal government. The government does not have the understanding or the task force to do this work alone. It is only logical, therefore, that it should coordinate its efforts with those of organizations with a background in social outreach. The problem arises when we try to determine to what extent religion and government can flow into and out of each other.
For faith-based organizations, the concern is that federal funding will force them to follow a strict government agenda, thus disintegrating their identities. Essentially, they could become mere puppets, convenient mechanisms with no spiritual core. For the Obama administration, the challenge is ensuring that federal funds are not misused to promote individual religious goals. Currently, the most problematic issue is that of using federal funds to hire workers based on religion. President Bush signed a proviso exempting faith-based organizations from the usual anti-discrimination laws in the hiring process, and Obama has not yet announced a decision on reversing it.
To not allow faith-based organizations to hire people of a similar belief system would be ridiculous; how can any organization maintain its integrity and vision unless it consists of people who share a common goal and mindset? Either the government should allow these organizations to hire according to their own preconditions, or it should work independently of religious groups altogether. To force them to compromise in an area so vital to their identities is unfair.
Conversely, the government rightly worries-as do many liberals-that certain organizations will gain inordinate influence over government policy on social outreach. This is a perfectly valid fear; if we truly want to be a nation where Church and State are kept separate, we must necessarily be wary of religious groups with too much power in legislation and administrative programs. There is also the danger of a system that is skewed in its representation of certain religious groups; in an aggregate like the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, it will be important to work at the fundamental level of unanimity. Outreach projects cannot risk collapsing under the weight of discord from bickering religious factions.
The effectiveness and integrity of Obama’s initiative remains to be seen. The fact that he recognizes the ability of faith-based organizations to reach people more successfully than the government shows that he is at least on the right track. His initiative is rooted in the knowledge that compassion and social justice are tenets of most faiths, and that these underlying values should allow their organizations to cooperate at a basic level. It will be fascinating to see, in the coming weeks and months, whether these institutions-Church and State-will thwart or benefit each other, and whether they will be able to maintain the conventional distance.
Aidan Lewis is a first-year ECLS major. He can be reached at [email protected]
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