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That little Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships idea…

By pams
Thursday, July 3, 2008 14:38 EDT
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My late, but not forgotten lengthy weigh-in on this topic. I’ve had so little time to actually write anything of consequence this week, but I didn’t want to toss off something frivilous about Barack Obama’s speech about implementing a Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships if elected. The thumbnail purpose — to offer secular programs administered through faith-based entities to address a host of social ills, with the rationale being that these organizations are community based and focused and therefore can serve populations more effectively and competently at the local level than the federal government.

Read his entire speech from Tuesday, as well as the fact sheet issued by the campaign on the general parameters of the program. Any assessment should be based on the primary source material, as incendiary as this topic is, particularly for Dems, who love the circular firing squad.

An aside — two interesting diaries popped up here on the Blend that are worth the click, a first-reaction diary based on the initial AP report of Obama’s speech on this, “Obama To Expand Bush Faith Based Programs,” by Susan_F, and “Eight questions on Obama and “Faith Based Initiatives” by Firefly, which drills down into key issues that any program of this nature raises for the presidential candidate, who is a constitutional scholar.

So my post is merely an attempt to break my reaction down. The hurdles I encountered are below the fold.

Hurdle #1: the Bush precedent poisons the waters of discussion.

Naturally, the current iteration of this kind of program, the White House Office on Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, has time and again shown that the Bush administration politicizes and destroys everything, and that colors our view of intent and execution. After all, Bush not only politicized faith-based programs by focusing on turning over tax dollars to the religious right for it to continue its propagandizing – he has corrupted purely secular agencies of government to the highest degree, such as the Department of Justice (remember Alberto Gonzales) and FEMA (Katrina), to serve as agents of the Republican agenda, and rife with corruption, and cronyism.

So casting that aside as I thought about Obama’s intent, both political and pragmatic, was difficult, and this hurdle has nothing to do with church-state separation, but operational excellence. For instance, faith-based organizations were able to mobilize and help Katrina victims far faster than the incompetent, unprepared FEMA. That was exposed right before our eyes on national television. But what we don’t know is how many of those faith based organizations engaged in discrimination or prosyletized those they served. Oversight was poor regarding contractors and agencies engaged to clean up the Gulf, imagine how little oversight there was about church-state separation problems with faith-based relief agencies.

It’s convincing me that any implementation of this kind of program, given government bureaucracy, will have sufficient oversight to avoid something like this:

The director of a Christian boot camp and an employee were arrested Friday for allegedly dragging a 15-year-old girl behind a van after she fell behind the group during a morning run, authorities said.

The camp has been hailed in the past by the White House Office on Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

Truth be told, the Bush administration did precious little with this office other than use it as a carrot to dangle in front of fundies as proof of “his compassion agenda” and the access he granted to them. It was largely a sham:

“I have this burden on my heart that the name of God is just being destroyed in the name of politics. I felt like I had to write this…People are being manipulated. Good well-meaning people are being told, ‘Send your money to this Christian advocacy group or that.’ And that’s the answer. It’s just not the answer. It’s not the answer.”
– David Kuo, on 60 Minutes, author of Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction, on the use of the use and abuse of fundamentalists by the White House. Kuo also said that political affairs people in the White House referred to Pat Robertson as “insane,” Jerry Falwell as “ridiculous,” and that James Dobson “had to be controlled.”

That leads to Hurdle #2…

Hurdle #2: Obama’s intent – political, altruistic, both, or neither?

After eight years of Bush’s hollow, craven program, the news that Barack Obama would attempt another stab at this was surely not going to be received well by many Dems who are mindful of the encroaching theocratic bent some of our elected officials are prone to, and see the desire to make electoral inroads with religious voters as dangerous.

Of course it’s a narrow but understandable view, given Hurdle #1, to immediately equate all faith-based groups as inherently evil in intent, or hell-bent (pun intended) on prosyletizing. There are plenty of progressive religious organizations capable and willing to work within or beyond federal guidelines to help their communities.

Since Obama, a constitutional scholar and a person of faith, does have to try to reconcile those issues and their impact on decision making in a country that is based on church-state separation, this is difficult, but it also isn’t something new. I’m really surprised at the sense of shock about the Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships idea that I am seeing out there. The Illinois senator has never hidden his faith, or believe in the idea, so I see the negative reaction to this at this point in his candidacy as kind of odd, similar to the highly negative reaction to his statement that he believes marriage is between a man and a woman. It’s no news (and is no different than all of the 2008 top-tier Dems), but at this point in the race it continues to breed mistrust, even as he issued statements opposing the state amendments banning same-sex marriage and reiterated his support for civil equality.

However, It’s seen as playing politics because the position is ultimately irreconcilable if viewed on any logical basis, particularly because Obama knows the law, and knows Loving v. Virginia. But the American public has been equally illogical about the matter from some time now, and as we’ve seen, most contemporary pols follow, not lead, on hot button social issues. That’s not an excuse, mind you, just an observation of fact.

In the case of this faith-based initiative, it’s a similar problem — given the McClurkin debacle, Obama has had to deal with how to court both LGBTs and religious blacks, honestly and fairly, given that there are key issues both groups face that place them in opposition to one another. Part of Barack Obama’s success has been his ability to bridge a host of groups of great diversity — age, race, region, class, religious/non-religious to name a few — by seeking inclusion and common ground. Unfortunately building a broad base like that means you will step on land mines. This is a big one.

Just my two cents — I do believe you can be pro-LGBT, believe in the separation of church and state, have personal beliefs and govern the country successfully with the correct balance. This does seem like a superhuman task, given politics in this country. Can Obama do this? I have no idea.

Anyone who is certain one way or the other is not being truthful. A president cannot pass legislation or approve a budget; a president cannot in a sweeping move, change a bloated government bureaucracy into a well-oiled machine that can perform the oversight necessary to avoid huge amounts of waste, fraud, abuse and discrimination in any program, let alone one of this kind. The idea of assisting local agencies, be they faith-based or secular, that have their pulse on the nature of local problems and may have more innovative solutions based on their knowledge of their communities is a good idea on paper as far as problem-solving is concerned. The problem is that on paper doesn’t usually translate into real world implementation without serious problems. And that leads to…

Hurdle #3: Discrimination.

This was Obama’s reaction to a question about discrimination against LGBTs by faith-based orgs.

He said religious organizations would not be allowed to use taxpayer funds to proselytize and would not be allowed to discriminate in providing services or in hiring staff for government-funded work.

In answer to a reporter’s question, Obama said federal anti-discrimination laws do not cover discrimination based on sexual orientation. But Obama said he believes local laws in some states prohibiting discrimination against gays would apply to faith-based social programs funded with federal money in those states.

Bzzzzt. Big problem Barack. I have zero rights in the state of North Carolina as a gay person. This flies in the face of all of your strong statements about civil equality. Are you saying that you approve of homeless LGBTs being turned away by a fundamentalist-run shelter in states that still legally discriminate? Just a casual “too bad, so sad” response for us out in Red State America? That wasn’t well thought out.

On the other hand, politically, this could be another example of sheer numbers being considered over purity of conviction. I’m sure this program can and will help millions of people in ways the federal government cannot. Certainly more people than those who would be turned away because of religious bigotry. If that’s the part of the political calculation, then Obama, in order to defuse the predictable blowback specifically on this issue, should have taken the opportunity to also announce his intention to place the passage of an inclusive ENDA at an equal level of importance as the establishment of a Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. It would then highlight the injustices that a program like this brings to the forefront — discrimination of any kind comes at a cost to a religious organization that intends to take federal funds.

Quite frankly, I don’t know why a faith-based organization that wants to continue to discriminate should feel entitled to any federal funds. John McCain predictably, thinks religious organizations should take our tax dollars without strings — and be able to discriminate. The fact of the matter is that Obama’s announcement isn’t being received well by the right wing fundies either. Take this reaction from Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, who agrees with McCain (NYT):

[E]vangelical leaders said not allowing religious groups to hire based on their beliefs would strip them of the very basis for religion-based programs.

“If you can’t hire people within your faith community, then you’ve lost the distinctive that is the reason why faith-based programs exist in the first place,” said Richard Land, head of the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention.

…A McCain campaign spokesman, Brian Rogers, said Mr. McCain “disagrees with Senator Obama that hiring at faith-based groups should be subject to government oversight.”

So there are a lot of unhappy people for different reasons. It’s interesting to see such an array of reactions on the issue of discrimination. It’s also instructive to note that on the left the fact that LGBTs can and will be discriminated against has largely been ignored. Sometimes your alleged friends drop you quickly when protecting their candidate. Paul the Spud at Shakesville hit the nail on the head.

Part of the reason I’m so upset is because of the reaction of many on the left to Obama’s speech. Apparently, once Obama stated he was going to “hold up the Constitution,” everything was A-OK, and we could go on about our lives. At Salon:

There’s simply nothing wrong with this. If Obama honors church-state separation and keeps the safeguards in place, as he clearly said he would, there’s no reason the government can’t partner with ministries willing to provide a secular social service.

Melissa chimed in with equal vigor:

Not every faith-based program is explicitly (or at all) anti-gay or anti-birth control, but that’s a pretty big question mark when you’re seeking services. This is particularly problematic for trans women and men, especially those who don’t easily “pass.” LGBTQs risk facing real hostility at faith-based service centers, especially in faith-based programs that service men and women separately.

In other words, one of the most at-risk populations for addiction, depression, homelessness, and suicide face significant deterrents to seeking help from faith-based programs.

That’s not going to change under Obama, nor would it under anyone else. It’s an inherent problem with faith-based programs, which is why the government’s involvement with them is crap. Period.

Paul also mentioned Jesse’s post on the topic where I mentioned in the comments that LGBT discrimination would legally occur under Obama’s program. That nugget garnered no reaction:

You will note that, in comments at Pandagon and in the comments thread in my post from yesterday, the discrimination of LGBTQ persons by FBO’s was brought up by Pam Spaulding and Melissa. And they received no response. This cannot be ignored or forgotten, especially by progressives; this is not simply a case of being discriminated against due to religious beliefs. This is, once again, the neglecting of LGBTQ Americans. And there’s simply everything wrong with that.

This, friends, is where the rubber meets the road in the progressive movement. It’s less about Barack Obama on this specific issue, it’s about when you see your allies’ blind spots revealed in service of “the greater good.” Combatting LGBT discrimination — a basic treatment of a group’s civil rights — hasn’t yet reached a level of serious commitment on the left that we can trust self-styled progressives not to look the other way, and tell us to go sit down and suck it up for “the big win.”

That can be interpreted as the old tattered heterosexual privilege slip of our society showing; it’s no different than when I point out white privilege slips showing when those occur; it’s notable that people usually take offense at the latter being pointed out by similarly going into denial and equivocating…or just silence, as in this case. Both of those privileges do not come out of malice, but they as we all know they usually go unchecked and unexamined, because it makes people uncomfortable – it also allows institutionalized and cultural discrimination to continue.

So, did I actually make any kind of decision on where I stand on this issue? I guess not. It’s very complicated and troubling from every POV. I think there are merits to actually trying to do a program like this in the right manner, but I don’t have full confidence that it can be pulled off. Barack Obama will clearly do a better job than Bush, who didn’t even try to work hard at accomplishing anything resembling “compassionate conservatism.”

All I can say to the Obama campaign is that there was no way to roll this sucker out without causing dissent in the base of the party for the variety of reasons you are seeing out there, and you’re boxed in by federal laws that set the senator up without any recourse but to endorse discrimination. That there was no plan to counter that, and it muddies the waters. It has to be clear what Barack Obama believes can and should be done to ensure people are treated equally under the law — and how to handle circumstances when the law doesn’t yet provide that protection.

Secular progressives need to remember that the U.S. for better or worse, is a religious country. That can manifest itself in various good in terms of charity and care for one’s neighbor (and indeed led the struggle for racial equality). That can also be seen, as we have experienced under the thumb of the religious right, a dangerous theocratic bent that threatens basic freedoms and rights.

I think our experience of late with Bush has hardened many on the secular left to faith, and has resulted in the belittling of believers of all faiths (references to “sky daddy,” for example), when in fact many observant people are politically our allies and even support LGBT equality (an aside – my views on faith are spelled out in this post).

How do we split the difference here when the enemy is the political religious right, not religion itself?

The key test for me for those who approve of government faith based partnerships is whether they would accept supporting say, a soup kitchen run by the Church of Satan, or a relief organization run by the FLDS or the Church of Scientology. The answer if they were asked this question would be telling, because if the answer by the campaign would be that all faiths would be equally scrutinized is yes, then they would have to deal with a different kind of fallout (that is equally legitimate).

 
 
 
 
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