Thursday, August 7, 2008

Faith-Based Initiatives: Solution or Threat?

It's easy to be cynical regarding the motives of those who are promoting the church/state alliance known as faith-based initiatives. On the surface, it is a political coup for the conservative cause where religious organizations, being denied front-door access to the machinery of government, have seemingly found a way in through the side door.

Many suggest this is too dangerous a glide on the slippery slope toward an eventual theocracy, thus rendering it unworkable. Is it? Or is it a modest and noble endeavor of government to provide assistance to organizations that have experience in tending to many of the symptoms of society's ills?

So enticing is the allure of capturing the votes of religious conservatives and evangelicals, soon-to-be official Democratic Party nominee Barack Obama is even proposing the expanding of faith-based initiatives. This capitulation points up the reality of religion's staying power and influence in the political arena. Indeed, no major party candidate has failed to pass the virtual religious litmus test imposed upon him or her by the election process. Exposing this litmus test for what it is, however, is at least a step in the right direction.

In theory, these faith-based programs can make a difference. But at what cost? Is it realistic to expect a religious organization doing outreach work for battered women, or ministering to prisoners, not to provide even a sampling of its core beliefs to its beneficiaries? Will they adhere to laws affecting the practical implementation of their programs? Most assuredly, the lawyers will be waiting - on both sides - to answer these questions. In fact, the amount of litigation these initiatives have already prompted is proving just how serious the threat to religious liberty - and the First Amendment - is perceived to be.

Even if government assurances were made that funds would only go toward the most dire or basic needs, by funding religious organizations to do this work, government is actively promoting religion because this support frees up other funds the churches take in to concentrate on their true mission: religious instruction and proselytizing. This is plainly an end run around church-state separation.

If we knew the real motives of groups applying for funds to be totally benign and selfless, faith-based initiatives might have a place in our society. Political reality, however, appropriately calls into question these very motives, and warns us not to turn back the clock on a doctrine the demise of which would be a disaster.

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