DNC panel considers future of faith-based initiatives

Prof. John DiIulio / Rabbi David Saperstein
Prof. John DiIulio / Rabbi David Saperstein


Whether and how to continue the faith-based initiatives begun by President George W. Bush were among the topics of discussion Tuesday at the Faith in Action Panel at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.

Panelists Rabbi David Saperstein, from the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and the University of Pennsylvania’s Professor John DiIulio discussed the difficulties involved in the program and voiced concern about the ability of religious groups to maintain their “prophetic witness” despite government funding. Further, they outlined some of Sen. Barack Obama’s proposed changes to the faith-based initiatives program.

Rabbi Saperstein said that the vast majority of the estimated 100,000 faith community initiatives do work well even without government involvement and he also granted the potential of government involvement to expand these communities’ programs.

However, he claimed the faith based initiatives as envisioned by the Bush administration had not worked out.

He alleged they were bad for the poor, bad for religion, bad public policy, and unconstitutional.

The rabbi said President Bush’s programs threatened religions’ autonomy and mission, while the regulatory entanglement accompanying federal funding could “mute the prophetic” in religious communities.

The Charitable Choice program, Rabbi Saperstein claimed, encouraged divisive competition among churches for federal money.

He indicated that the need to prevent abuses causes entangling problems.

“We don’t want government surveillance of churches,” he said, while also saying that government money “should never be used to discriminate.”

A solution to these problems, Rabbi Saperstein proposed, involved separating church charities into non-profit organizations. If faith-based initiative funding is to continue, he explained, the government could encourage laws making such legal changes easier.

Prof. John DiIulio, who was also the first director the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives under President George W. Bush, described Sen. Obama’s proposed modifications to the faith-based initiatives program, saying he is “exceedingly encouraged” by them.

He praised what he said was their “extraordinary” breadth of vision, their respect for constitutional bounds, their combination of faith- and fact-based organization, and their adherence to the “fiscal reality principle.” He also characterized the plans as “principled and pluralistic,” citing Obama’s July 1 speech on the topic in Zanesville, Ohio as evidence of “operational depth.”

In that speech, Obama pledged to commit $500 million in federal funding for religious organizations to help the disadvantaged, the Boston Globe says.

DiIulio noted that religious non-profits comprise the largest portion of the $1 trillion tax-exempt sector in the United States, but said including the “politically unconnected” religious organizations was a problem for any faith-based initiative.

Risking the disapproval of his DNC audience, DiIulio also credited George W. Bush for keeping the initiatives on the national agenda. He said Bush’s best faith-based initiative policy was the HIV/AIDS relief effort in sub-Saharan Africa, though he criticized the domestic manifestation of similarly organized initiatives.

DiIulio concluded by saying it is impossible to go to poverty stricken areas or disaster zones like New Orleans without understanding that “the faith community is leading the way, with or without government funding.”

Panel moderator Rev. Jim Wallis remarked on the discussion by arguing that faith-based initiatives are too often used as a substitute for “sound public policy.” DiIulio concurred, saying one ought not cut Head Start programs but then fund faith-based pre-schools.

Rev. Otis Moss, Jr., a former staffer of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., also addressed the gathering of DNC delegates and guests, saying there should be a “healthy tension” between faith-based mission and government enterprise.

However, he clarified, “tension doesn’t have to be hostility.”

Quoting Martin Luther King, Jr.’s remarks that the church ought to be neither servant nor master of the state, but rather its conscience, Rev. Moss called for increased cooperation between government agencies and religious organizations to increase their mutual knowledge and mutual contributions to society.

Nonetheless, he reminded the audience not to compromise their beliefs for the sake of influence.

“We should never allow the state to dwarf our witness,” Rev. Moss exhorted.

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