Unlike his stark reversal on FISA legislation, Obama's faith initiative is consistent with longstanding tenets of Obama's thinking -- or, if you want to be cynical about it, of his positioning. His speech in Zanesville Ohio introducing this plan touched several interlocking core Obama themes.
Let me say at the outset that the conceptual coherence outlined below does not by any means prove that religious organizations can effectively abide by the ground rules Obama sketches out in this speech, or that government money can be effectively deployed by funding religious charity. My point is simply that the thinking behind the initiative is absolut Obama, not some sudden departure. Here are the Obamaist elements:
1. unity and universalism: Obama burst on the national scene at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 with a lyrical assertion that what unites Americans is stronger than what divides them. He said then: "It is that fundamental belief -- that I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper -- that makes this country work. It's what allows us to pursue our individual dreams and yet still come together as one American family." The claim to unity is cast in religious terms -- but religious on his terms, which in their ethical dimension are universal. While Obama professes and encourages personal and particular religious belief and expression, in the public square he insists on a kind of ethical Unitarianism. Here's how he put it in the Audacity of Hope (p. 219):
What our deliberative, pluralistic democracy does demand is that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals must be subject to argument and amenable to reason.In Zanesville, Obama called for this universalism to play itself out in social action:
I'm not saying that faith-based groups are an alternative to government or secular nonprofits. And I'm not saying that they're somehow better at lifting people up. What I'm saying is that we all have to work together – Christian and Jew, Hindu and Muslim; believer and non-believer alike – to meet the challenges of the 21st century.Obama would have us believe that the differences between religious groups can be subsumed in their work toward goals on which all can agree. Whether they can do so without imposing their particular beliefs on those they serve -- or on those whom they pay to serve -- depends on the design and execution of government ground rules.
2. Pragmatism: In a discussion of economic policy, Obama recently told The Wall Street Journal:
I tend to be eclectic. I do think we're in a different time in 2008 than we were in 1992. The thing I think people should feel confident in is that I'm going to make these judgments not based on some fierce ideological pre-disposition but based on what makes sense. I'm a big believer in evidence. I'm a big believer in fact. You know, if somebody shows me we can do something better through a market mechanism, I'm happy to do it. I have no vested interest in expanding government or setting up a program just for the sake of setting one up. It's too much work.In Zanesville he cast the faith-based initiative in similar terms -- as something to be embraced because it's a practical way to marshall resources toward shared goals.
The fact is, the challenges we face today – from saving our planet to ending poverty – are simply too big for government to solve alone. We need all hands on deck.3. Liberalism (which in Obama's book is pragmatism): After losing the Democratic majority in Congress, and as prelude to a long series of modest initiatives in social policy, Bill Clinton famously announced, "The era of big government is over." George Bush Sr., announcing the nation had "more will than wallet," touted American volunteerism as "a thousand points of light" -- i.e., as a substitute, or rather an ideologically preferable alternative, to government action to help the poor and needy. Obama, in contrast to both, casts faith- and community-based initiatives as a means to leverage government's power to address social ills. In a sense this is bigger government and in a sense it's smaller.
4. Fairness: Obama habitually casts his liberalism as a return, in the wake of a generation of government favoring the wealthy and powerful, to basic fairness. He presents fairness in turn as the deepest pragmatism, because only shared prosperity is sustainable. In Zanesville, he complained that political favoritism in the faith-based initiative led the Bush Administration to waste resources:
... the Office never fulfilled its promise. Support for social services to the poor and the needy have been consistently underfunded. Rather than promoting the cause of all faith-based organizations, former officials in the Office have described how it was used to promote partisan interests. As a result, the smaller congregations and community groups that were supposed to be empowered ended up getting short-changed.Obama by way of contrast envisions marshalling every program large and small that proves itself effective:
Too often, faith-based groups – especially smaller congregations and those that aren't well connected – don't know how to apply for federal dollars, or how to navigate a government website to see what grants are available, or how to comply with federal laws and regulations... what's stopping many faith-based groups from helping struggling families is simply a lack of knowledge about how the system works.Again, this is leveraging -- government empowering large religious groups to empower small religious groups, which he sees as embodying creativity and responsiveness to local need.
Well, that will change when I'm President. I will empower the nonprofit religious and community groups that do understand how this process works to train the thousands of groups that don't. We'll "train the trainers" by giving larger faith-based partners like Catholic Charities and Lutheran Services and secular nonprofits like Public/Private Ventures the support they need to help other groups build and run effective programs. Every house of worship that wants to run an effective program and that's willing to abide by our constitution – from the largest mega-churches and synagogues to the smallest store-front churches and mosques – can and will have access to the information and support they need to run that program.
5. Bottom-up social action: Obama begins this speech by pointing out that his public career began with a church-funded effort "to help lift up neighborhoods that were devasted by the closure of a local steel plant." He might have added that his years an organizer consisted mainly of attempts to marshall church groups to support attainable proejcts conceived by the people they were designed to serve. He is speaking directly from his own experience when he asserts:
You see, while these groups are often made up of folks who've come together around a common faith, they're usually working to help people of all faiths or of no faith at all. And they're particularly well-placed to offer help. As I've said many times, I believe that change comes not from the top-down, but from the bottom-up, and few are closer to the people than our churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques.Obama's whole career is based on faith in bottom-up action. His first experience of such action was through church groups. His faith-based initiative is a return to the roots of his public career.
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