Obama’s Faith-Based Intentions

by Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

As an occasional contributor to Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, I had to take a deep breath before I let myself decide what to think about Barack Obama’s announcement Tuesday that, as president, he plans to expand government support for faith-based organizations that deliver social services in their communities.

I confess to a touch of pride when I forgo the snap judgment on a subject as important to me as not having someone else’s religion (or lack thereof) shoved down my throat. I put an extra gold star on my forehead Tuesday, when I rejected the obvious “he’s pandering to the religious right” explanation. But it wasn’t until I saw Barry W. Lynn, Executive Director of Americans United, on “Countdown” Tuesday night, that I realized what is right about Obama’s intention.

Commenting on Obama’s requirement that religious groups that receive funding from his newly defined Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives cannot use federal funds to proselytize or provide religious sectarian instruction, cannot discriminate against nonmembers in providing services, and can use taxpayer dollars only on secular programs and initiatives, Lynn said it’s hard to imagine that these groups are going to “turn off their spirituality” when they’re spending government money.

Lynn, an ordained UCC minister, should know better than to confuse religion and spirituality. It came to me in that moment that what Obama proposes is exactly what you’d expect him to propose if you understand his core values and his core constituency.

Much has been said to explain Obama’s amazing primary win: sexism, HRC’s arrogance, her faulty campaign strategy, her husband, hostility of the mainstream media, Obama’s mesmerizing eloquence, his campaign’s technological superiority, news media favoritism, sexism.

All of this misses the point of the Obama candidacy. He won – and will win, I believe, in November – because he has tapped into a desire for change the nature of which eludes most of the following: the mainstream media, the radical political right, the mainstream clergy, and that still-small portion of the general public that is paying attention. It does not elude people of spiritual depth, non-radical evangelicals, or those who don’t buy in to the value system that led GWBush to tell us to go shopping while we were still absorbing the tragedy of 9/11.

Sure Obama has a better-than-healthy ego. Sure he’s ambitious. I’ll even grant that he stands to gain more votes than he loses by declaring his intention to continue the practice, begun in the Reagan era, of funding religious groups for social service work. (Hardly anybody had a problem with the policy until GWB spit in the well by turning his White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives into a Christianist storefront.) Obama has to remind us that he’s a committed Christian largely because there are people out there who, despite all the evidence to the contrary, insist he is not. What Obama is promoting, though, is spirituality, not religion.

Corinne McLaughlin distinguishes between religion and spirituality in Spiritual Politics: Innovative Approaches:

[T]here’s a big difference between spirituality and religion. “Religion” refers to an organized institution and community of believers, with specific dogmas and practices. But spirituality relates to one’s inner, moral-centered life in relation to the Transcendent.  It is concerned with qualities of the human spirit such as love and courage. Religion can help a person be spiritual, but spirituality isn’t dependent upon religion.

In actual practice, true spirituality can ennoble politics and politics can ground spirituality. Spirituality can help people leave ego and power trips at the door and truly serve the good of others. […] Bringing spiritual values such as altruism and courage into politics could offset the immense power of moneyed interests to influence policy, and offset the cynicism and apathy of much of the public.

That’s the kind of change Barack Obama is talking about. It’s what makes him so attractive to people fed up with the “greed is good” dictum that has followed us from the 1980s into the 21st century. In announcing his intention to clean up the well of compassion that the Bush administration has fouled, Obama is being true to his spiritual nature, hoping to inspire us to be true to ours.

The social service organizations Obama proposes to aid through his Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives will be required to focus on their spirituality, not on their religious beliefs, when they use federal money in their work. Rev. Lynn, more than most people, should understand that it is spirituality that motivates people to perform social service.  Turning off their spirituality would be both impossible and undesirable.

The mainstream media have so far overlooked the most important part of Obama’s announcement: the office will help small groups in poor neighborhoods, who can’t afford experienced grant writers to navigate the shoals of government, to formulate their plans and present them in a more persuasive and successful manner than their own meager resources would allow. If this makes small churches and storefront service agencies more powerful in their communities, that cannot be anything but good.

In a 1994 poll, US News and World Report found that 84% of those who responded agreed with the statement, “Our government would be better if policies were more directed by moral values.” And 78% agreed that “The President should be a moral and spiritual leader.” We’ve seen the kind of moral and spiritual values our presidents have modeled since then. That’s why Obama is such an attractive candidate, and why he will win.

Full text of Obama’s prepared statement follows.


Remarks of Senator Barack Obama

(As prepared for delivery)

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Zanesville, Ohio

You know, faith based groups like East Side Community Ministry carry a particular meaning for me. Because in a way, they’re what led me into public service. It was a Catholic group called The Campaign for Human Development that helped fund the work I did many years ago in Chicago to help lift up neighborhoods that were devastated by the closure of a local steel plant.

Now, I didn’t grow up in a particularly religious household. But my experience in Chicago showed me how faith and values could be an anchor in my life. And in time, I came to see my faith as being both a personal commitment to Christ and a commitment to my community; that while I could sit in church and pray all I want, I wouldn’t be fulfilling God’s will unless I went out and did the Lord’s work.

There are millions of Americans who share a similar view of their faith, who feel they have an obligation to help others. And they’re making a difference in communities all across this country – through initiatives like Ready4Work, which is helping ensure that ex-offenders don’t return to a life of crime; or Catholic Charities, which is feeding the hungry and making sure we don’t have homeless veterans sleeping on the streets of Chicago; or the good work that’s being done by a coalition of religious groups to rebuild New Orleans.

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.

That’s why Washington needs to draw on them. 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.

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.

Now, I know there are some who bristle at the notion that faith has a place in the public square. But the fact is, leaders in both parties have recognized the value of a partnership between the White House and faith-based groups. President Clinton signed legislation that opened the door for faith-based groups to play a role in a number of areas, including helping people move from welfare to work. Al Gore proposed a partnership between Washington and faith-based groups to provide more support for the least of these. And President Bush came into office with a promise to “rally the armies of compassion,” establishing a new Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

But what we saw instead was that 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.

Well, I still believe it’s a good idea to have a partnership between the White House and grassroots groups, both faith-based and secular. But it has to be a real partnership – not a photo-op. That’s what it will be when I’m President. I’ll establish a new Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The new name will reflect a new commitment. This Council will not just be another name on the White House organization chart – it will be a critical part of my administration.

Now, make no mistake, as someone who used to teach constitutional law, I believe deeply in the separation of church and state, but I don’t believe this partnership will endanger that idea – so long as we follow a few basic principles. First, if you get a federal grant, you can’t use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can’t discriminate against them – or against the people you hire – on the basis of their religion. Second, federal dollars that go directly to churches, temples, and mosques can only be used on secular programs. And we’ll also ensure that taxpayer dollars only go to those programs that actually work.

With these principles as a guide, my Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships will strengthen faith-based groups by making sure they know the opportunities open to them to build on their good works. 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. We rely too much on conferences in Washington, instead of getting technical assistance to the people who need it on the ground. What this means is that what’s stopping many faith-based groups from helping struggling families is simply a lack of knowledge about how the system works.

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.

This Council will also help target our efforts to meet key challenges like education. All across America, too many children simply can’t read or perform math at their grade-level, a problem that grows worse for low-income students during the summer months and afterschool hours. Nonprofits like Children’s Defense Fund are working to solve this problem. They hold summer and afterschool Freedom Schools in communities across this country, and many of their classes are held in churches.

There’s a lot of evidence that these kinds of partnerships work. Take Youth Education for Tomorrow, an innovative program that’s being run by churches, faith-based schools, and others in Philadelphia. To help narrow the summer learning gap, the YET program hires qualified teachers who help students with reading using proven learning techniques. They hold classes four days a week after school and during the summer. And they monitor progress closely. The results have been outstanding. Children who attended a YET center for at least six months improved nearly 2 years in reading ability. And the average high school student gained a full grade in reading level after just three months.

That’s the kind of real progress that can be made when we empower faith-based organizations. And that’s why as President, I’ll expand summer programs like this to serve one million students. This won’t just help our children learn, it will help keep them off the streets during the summer so they don’t turn to crime.

And my Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships will also have a broader role – it will help set our national agenda. Because if we are going to do something about the injustice of millions of children living in extreme poverty, we need interfaith coalitions like the Let Justice Roll campaign standing up for the powerless. If we’re going to end genocide and stop the scourge of HIV/AIDS, we need people of faith on Capitol Hill talking about how these challenges don’t just represent a security crisis or a humanitarian crisis, but a moral crisis as well.

We know that faith and values can be a source of strength in our own lives. That’s what it’s been to me. And that’s what it is to so many Americans. But it can also be something more. It can be the foundation of a new project of American renewal. And that’s the kind of effort I intend to lead as President of the United States.

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23 Responses to “Obama’s Faith-Based Intentions”

  1. […] Obama’s Faith-Based Intentions And they’re making a difference in communities all across this country – through initiatives like Ready4Work, which is helping ensure that ex-offenders don’t return to a life of crime; or Catholic Charities, which is feeding the hungry … […]

  2. Miryam, thanks for that definition of spirituality.  I postponed my marriage 15 years ago because I read an advertisement promising a spiritual marriage in the red rocks, doves being released etc.  Cool I thought until I went down  and found out that spiritual meant Christian bible spiritual.  Not my cup of tee.  Found a nice judge the next day, no freeing of doves but instead a nice “Indian” quote about caring for each other.

    Obama’s spirituality has always been inclusive probably from the way he was raised and being exposed to so many religions and non-religions he’s realizied like the humanists have that having morals is what makes us human but that not everyone needs the belief in a higher power to act with morality.  In his books and in his speeches agnostics and atheists like myself are included instead of excluded.  More like atheism is a religion too instead of a non-religion.  I don’t know if I’d accept that view from anyone else but Obama makes it easy to agree with him.

  3. I completely disagree, and its not a “knee-jerk” reaction to realize that funding for religious non-profits is an underhanded way of outsourcing secular social service agencies. The preaching is intrinsic in the helping; thats why most of them do it. Anyone whose ever dealt with homeless populations will tell you that; the first words out of a homeless persons mouth, regardless whether its the truth or not, is “I am a Christian”. They don’t do this because of some ingrained spirituality; they do it cause they’ve been massaged into repeating it for every religious organization they run into. Any further funding of such organizations simply perpetuates the same regardless if the program they are running is “Secular” or separated out by some legal mumbo jumbo to be “independent” of the larger Church apparatus.
    Part of my irritation might be professional; I am a secular social worker. So I’m irritated, to see the least, to see large grant sums go to faith-based groups in order for them to bolster their prestige and headcount in the pews. It is clear that all non-profits funded MUST be absolutely secular, must not be attached to a Church, in name or in fact (by commingling boards, executives, officers, etc), and must show diversity in hiring, both in name and fact.

  4. Obama’s suitability as the face of America does transcend anything that might previously have qualified as conventional, and Williamson has conned a key feature of not only Obama’s strength but, perhaps more importantly, his appeal. Here is a candidate whose original thinking takes tired phrases—like faith-based—and re-energizes their meaning.
    Williamson’s assessment weighs the promise that portends something real, for the first time in decades, in our government despite the cynical power that prevails in Washington. While I don’t think Barack Obama is or has been immune or reluctant to practice the Capitol’s self-serving, obsequious ways, I have the slightest hope that (if the election is not once again stolen), he may at least hear the poor and oppressed and bring them a better tomorrow. 

  5. Michael Winship has a similar take:

  6. I don’t mind that he threads this needle. Abolitionists were deeply religious, after all. My wish for the future is that atheist or agnostic organizations get the same kind of leeway with the American people that spiritual organizations enjoy today.

  7. Miryam, you have hit the nail on the head. The faith based support is a piece of overall change. It is calling “all hands on deck” (a quote from Obama I saw somewhere).

    I took a pause when I first heard Obamam’s intentions regarding faith based programs, but as you note, taking time to understand the man and his mission clears up a lot.

  8. Miryam, your argument is compelling. Nevertheless, while I think it would be efficient to use the infrastructure that already exists — faith based charities — to serve neighborhoods, I’m skeptical about whether it is possible for some of them to separate their religion from their spirituality. For example, I heard Texas Fundamentalists interviewed on NPR on primary voting day. Women as well as men said they would never vote for a woman for president because God meant for men to be at the head of the church, the family, and the country. How can people who think like that help women who feel discriminated against in business? Will they stand up for women in domestic abuse situations? I have my doubts.

  9. Thanks for the illuminating commentary. I hadn’t thought enough about the depth and import of Obama’s Faith-based Intentions. His intent reveals another facet of his inspiring character. I’m also struck by his attention to the smaller congregations/cohorts who will get the assistance needed to present their ideas for funding. I’m very appreciative of Miryam Williamson’s informed perspective.  I love her note that ‘GWB spit in the well’ and poisoned  a tradition of faith-based involvement. I’ll be passing her comments to people who will want to read her response.

  10. Excellent article Miryam! Clear and important distinctions between “religion” and “spiriuality” and the importance of keeping church and state “separate” while needing political leaders to have moral and ethical and spiritual compasses that always point true north.  Obama will win if continues to preach the good news of human compassion and deflects the insanity of the polarizing knee jerk reactionaries on both sides of the aisle.  On this Independence Day, 2008, it is important to remember that our nation was created to “liberate us” from oppression.  Obama preaches a politics of liberation…another reason he will win in November!

  11. Good thinking, Miryam! Obama seems serious about a policy of inclusion, as opposed to merely winning 51%. One consequence of this is that I shall disagree with him on issues; another is that I feel as though my disagreements will be heard and (if widely shared) may have influence. For instance, on FISA and public financing of presidential campaigns, I actually have hope (I know, I know) that he will institute reforms rather than exploit loopholes once he’s on top and in a position to squelch his opponents. Similarly with the faith-based initiatives: There are plenty of really good activists who are religious, as well as some exploitative jerks. Helping Obama distinguish is at least partly OUR job. It’s all our job! And Obama may just help us do our job …

  12. Miryam’s sharp mind and equally sharp writing skills on on display for all to see. I’m a lifelong Democrat and churchgoer with faith to spare in supporting right causes, and no time for those who would, and have, stolen America’s birthright and sold it to the highest bidder. Obama has been a slow sell to me up to now, but he is far away the best of this autumn’s alternatives. It’s good to see so many people, young and old, supporting change for the better. Hurry on November, and January!

  13. I appreciate Miryam’s insight. 

    We the people formed this government to do for us as a society what we could not accomplish individually. We therefore ceeded certain rights to the government, but we did not abrogate our freedom. Freedom to believe or not is something that cannot be influenced or abridged by government. The state shall not in any way take any action to establish religion or show preference or influence worship. Govt money going to “faith-based” initiatives takes away money for worthy social programs which are secular.  Thus the use of govt money suppports religionand that is contrary to the intent of the people when they consented to the Constitution.

    The Presidency may be a bully pulpit..but it is not a sounding board to promote religion per se..but as a promoter of the general welfare.

  14. Welcome Miryam. I think I met you 10 years ago at Warwick’s Old Home Days when I worked for Congressman Olver.
    In 1976, while a freshman at UMass/Amherst, I helped organize a huge rally for Fred Harris at the Student Union. I saw Fred at the 2004 Democratic Convention in Boston (at the Native American Caucus) and reminded him of that event and we took a picture together.

  15. Very thought provoking. I, too, admit to a certain queasiness when Obama announced his support of faith-based initiatives. Shades of Bill Clinton, I thought, he’s co-opting a Republican message. I’m more relieved now that I’ve read Miryam’s take on it.

  16. I enjoyed the Author’s perspective which served to soften my opinion that government money and religion shouldn’t mix.   I very much agree that a society is morally obligated to provide help and opportunities to those that need it. Without help a Caste system would soon develop.
    I do think that improvements making the process more palatable to the recipients can be made. I would find it intimidating and annoying being required to visit a church to be dispensed aid originated from tax dollars, not from collection plates. I’d feel the same way if I were required to visit NRA offices. Perhaps a compromise is in order. Why not select  “Neutral ground?” Schools and fire halls are everywhere.   Remove the “Home Turf” advantage. Doing so would make it evident that it’s a government financed program that is being administered by people who freely donate their time to help others. We’ve all seen those craving authority gravitate to positions for the sole purpose of making other’s grovel. Someone who needs aid is already feeling bad enough.
    Jim Hawes

  17. I wish that the separation of church and state was as clear as it was when JFK had to do the opposite kind of dance and explain that his religion would not determine his politics. However, given the times we’re in, Obama has no choice but to emphasize his religion to the max.

    I’m just glad he’s someone capable of speaking to this in a thoughtful and often refreshingly honest manner, as he does with so many issues – which is why he got my vote in the primary and will again in November, if I’m still around and up to doing the absentee ballot thing again.

  18. Miryam, I believe we should guard against blind approval of Sentor Obama as you seem to be leaning toward doing. Faith-based initiatives can be much more efficient than the federal government’s huge, lumbering bureaucracies. And since  our government has turned to private industry for running our prisons and even some of our schools, why not turn toward religious centers for running our social programs?  

    I, for one, don’t think a discussion of religion vs. spirituality goes to the heart of why such programs can be effective–your point about these houses of worship being closer to the heartbeat of the needs of our local neighborhoods does however. Yet, again we must avoid blind “political correctness” when discussing which faiths would do the jobs effectively. We tend to let Christian, Jew, Muslim roll off the tongue and lump them all together in their outreach, history of philantrophy, and future potential for ecumenical goodwill. Now, in Senator Obama’s speech that you cited he even threw in Hindus.

    I don’t know what the history or present practice of charity is for Hindus in their various temples; however, I do know that synagogues have only had social programs for Jews and so why would he think they’d start anything differently now since they just haven’t been set up to reach beyond their own community. It’s primarily secular Jewish organizations that have a long history of charity and outreach beyond the Jewish community–not their synagogues. So why the “political correctness?” I say leave them out of the faith-based initiatives entirely; it will only be a waste of money and efficiency. And we’ve wasted enough money with GWB favoring every right-wing storefront church he could find during his presidency.

    Catholics and Muslims have the widest reach, the longest history, and ingrained principles for charity. Let us, please, understand that we can not be everything for everybody. In our patchwork society there are some ethnic groups, some gender groups, some age groups–and, yes, some religious groups that can accomplish certain tasks better than others. Let them accomplish it for the good of the whole. However, this rote inclusiveness and political correctness only speaks to me sadly of Senator Obama missing his opportunity for true change.

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