The most disconcerting part of Obama’s faith initiative is that they didn’t seem to be aware of the volatile politics of one provision: whether faith-based groups can hire and fire according to someone’s religion. “Any religious organization that does not want to comply with that requirement simply doesn’t have to take the money,” said law professor and Obama advisor Martha Minnow. “I don’t think there’s anything too controversial about that.”
Not controversial, eh? Writing that Obama’s proposal was a “fraud,” the Catholic League’s Bill Donohue declared, “If a customer walked into a New York deli and said, ‘Let me have a hot dog on a roll–hold the frankfurter’–he’d likely be thrown out. That’s what the public should do to Obama’s faith-based initiative: since he wants to gut the faith from his faith-based programs, he should be told to junk it.”
Or, from Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins: “Obama’s interpretation would be a body blow to religious groups that apply for federal funds.”
Worst of all for Obama, Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals — a moderate — said, “That’s extremely disappointing.”
In a later post I’m going to dive into the actual law but here I want to simply draw attention to a portion of Tempting Faith, the book by my Beliefnet colleague David Kuo, who was the deputy director of the White House Office of Faith Based Initiatives under Bush. He describes how the Bush White House wanted to make a big deal about federal rules preventing programs from hiring on the basis of faith. They instructed the staff to find outrageous examples of religious charities being forced to abandon their principles:
“There was only onne problem. Hundreds of calls were made and not one additional example was found.”
Why? Because “most of the faith-based groups that did contract with the federal government were large and well lawyered” and therefore skillful at working around the law so they could get the money.
Kuo tried to convince his colleagues that it was a minor issue and that downplaying it could help them forge a consensus. But, it turned out, building consensus really wasn’t the goal. “Jim [Towey, the office's director] was fully engaged in West Wing politics and smart enough to know how best to tickle political fancies. The religious hiring issues was polarizing… More action on the same subject would mean more attention for Jim’s efforts. Therefore the religious hiring issue was good.”
In other words, the religious hiring issue is one of these classic Washington creatures that interest groups care more about than those on the ground. Liberals loved it when Bush moved the line because they could claim he was gutting separation of church and state. Conservative activists love it that Obama has taken his position because they can claim he’s gutting faith.
The reality is that the rule – though dealing with some interesting and important principles — affects few groups in the real world. The test for Obama will be whether he can keep this particular red herring from blocking real progress that would help the poor.