White House (CNSNews.com) – President Barack Obama Thursday promoted his version of a faith-based initiative plan that did not entirely please either the right or the left, even as the House-passed economic stimulus bill proposes to spend $500 million on such programs.
Conservatives are leery as to what type of faith-based funding will occur, while the liberal Americans United for Separation of Church and State is upset that Obama did not roll back the Bush administration’s policies on faith-based funding.
Obama signed an executive order Thursday to create the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. President George W. Bush had created a similar office to fund religious-based charitable organizations.
“Instead of driving us apart, our varied beliefs can bring us together to feed the hungry and comfort the afflicted; to make peace where there is strife and rebuild what has broken; to lift up those who have fallen on hard times,” Obama said Thursday at the National Prayer Breakfast. “This is not only our call as people of faith, but our duty as citizens of America and citizens of the world.”
Obama named 26-year-old Joshua Dubois, who did religious outreach for the campaign, as the executive director of the faith-based office.
The president also talked about his own journey to Christianity, but he stressed that the program “will not be to favor one religious group over another – or even religious groups over secular groups. It will simply be to work on behalf of those organizations that want to work on behalf of our communities, and to do so without blurring the line that our Founders wisely drew between church and state.”
While the Bush plan focused almost entirely on charity, Obama’s office will also work with the National Security Council to “promote interfaith dialogue” around the world. The office specifically says it will address the needs of women, children and “responsible fathers,” and will address teenage pregnancy.
The executive order states that the new office will work with the White House Counsel and the Justice Department to avoid any funding issues that might not be constitutional.
However, Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, criticized the initiative for not setting hiring mandates and not barring proselytizing, which he said violated civil rights and the Constitution.
“I am very disappointed that President Obama’s faith-based program is being rolled out without barring evangelism and religious discrimination in taxpayer-funded programs,” Lynn said in a statement. “It should be obvious that taxpayer-funded religious bias offends our civil rights laws, our Constitution and our shared sense of values.”
Meanwhile, Tom McClusky, vice president of government affairs at the conservative Family Research Council, expressed concerns about a liberal social agenda.
“I fear this will be more politicized with a more pro-abortion agenda,” McClusky told CNSNews.com, adding that at least one member of the 25-member advisory council for the office has affiliations with Planned Parenthood.
“My fear is that this money will go out to community organizers – and will these community organizers be more sympathetic with Planned Parenthood than with the Southern Baptist Convention?” McClusky added.
Obama said at the prayer breakfast that he did not grow up in a religious household.
“I had a father who was born a Muslim but became an atheist, grandparents who were non-practicing Methodists and Baptists, and a mother who was skeptical of organized religion, even as she was the kindest, most spiritual person I’ve ever known,” Obama said. “She was the one who taught me as a child to love, and to understand, and to do unto others as I would want done.
“I didn’t become a Christian until many years later, when I moved to the south side of Chicago after college,” said Obama. “It happened not because of indoctrination or a sudden revelation, but because I spent month after month working with church folks who simply wanted to help neighbors who were down on their luck.”
While the $900-billion stimulus package being considered in the Senate does not have funding for faith-based programs, the bill that passed the House includes $500 million for the “Compassion Capital Fund” to go to eligible faith-based and community groups. Among that allocation, $250 million would be spent immediately after the start of fiscal year 2010, in October.
Like various other earmarks, faith-based funding does not belong in any stimulus bill, said David Williams, vice president for policy at Citizens Against Government Waste.
“Faith-based initiatives were a bad idea in the Bush administration and, eight years later, they are still not a good idea,” Williams told CNSNews.com. “It’s another program for handing out earmarks and political favors – setting the church-state issue aside.
“Taxpayers become unwitting donors. A Catholic would have to contribute to a synagogue because as a taxpayer he would have no choice. Voluntary organizations should be voluntary. Money should come from donors, not taxpayers,” he added.