Last week, Barack Obama came out in favor of federal spending for faith-based social work – not the Sunday bean-pot suppers but the soup-kitchen kind that helps the disadvantaged. He would improve on what Presidents Clinton and Bush started, but also add this troubling detail: He wants such taxpayer-funded charities to lobby Congress.
If elected, Mr. Obama would use this federal lever over religious aid groups to enlist them in setting what he calls "our national agenda." Specifically, as he indicated in a speech on faith last week, he wants them to walk the halls of Capitol Hill and whip up support for new social programs.
He would, in effect, spend public money to create private lobbies for more public spending. And this is "change" from the grass roots? Or would it be subtle coercion?
To his credit, Obama defied many within his own party by generally supporting the work of President Bush's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. And he acknowledges that some problems "are simply too big for government to solve."
This former community organizer has experienced the power of small groups in making a difference for the powerless. He has tapped into that wellspring of giving in which about 1 in 3 American adults spends an hour or more each month in volunteer community service (and that doesn't include religious work).
These religious aid groups often help people that government cannot reach. They create innovative solutions. Under Bush's program for the last fiscal year, they were given $2.2 billion in competitive grants by 11 different federal agencies. They helped reduce homelessness, matched up children of prisoners with adult mentors, and did other worthwhile social work.
This idea of government money for religious charities has spread beyond the federal level, with more than 70 mayors and 35 governors of both parties now practicing it. One 2006 study in Philadelphia found congregations provide social services that would otherwise cost government about $250 million.
It's an idea Obama could not ignore (John McCain simply endorses the Bush program), but one which he would try to redirect.
He would, for instance, bar religious charities from favoring people of their faith in hiring – something which would discourage many groups from participating and perhaps violate the religious exemption of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and Supreme Court decisions. The effect would be to secularize religious charity – beyond the current rules that require such groups to give equal treatment to all clients and not to proselytize. Such a hiring mandate isn't imposed on church-backed hospitals and universities that receive federal funds.
To Obama, Bush's program hasn't gone far enough. Critics of the program claim money has often been directed to groups in favor with the White House. Obama himself would realign these charities closely with government. He offers no figures on how much more money he would spend on such private work, only that it would be "central" in his social policy.
At the least, though, such funding should not come with tacit conditions that religious charities join a president's political crusade in his dealings with Congress.