My First Big Disappointment with Obama

February 8, 2009

Obama has impressed many of us in the “reality based community” who have been repeatedly disheartened by some of his predecessor’s policies: by executive order, he has swiftly moved to reverse Bush’s policies on the detention and torture of terror suspects and the eventual closing of Gitmo, the government funding of abortion and family planning counseling, some of Bush’s anti-union labor policies, and environmental issues such as fuel efficiency standards. And he has recently said he will sign an executive order to reverse Bush’s policies limiting stem-cell research. All of these are reasons that many pro-science secular types celebrate the change Obama has promised.

But there is one area of   change I     can’t     believe in : Obama has not only brought change to Bush’s Faith Based Initiative, but has actually expanded the program! And he did so without even attempting to change it in the right ways so as to officially prohibit proselytizing and religious discrimination! Real change would be to abolish such a dangerous blending of church and state.

One of the reasons some seculars may feel conflicted about Obama’s expanded faith based initiative is that one of its stated goals is to mobilize faith and community groups to more effectively combat poverty, which is obviously a worthwhile goal in itself, one generally ignored by Bush.  So Obama doesn’t object to government funds going to religions, he just objects to it not being very effective under Bush! But even with his focus on poverty, the program constitutes an increase of taxpayer dollars going to private religious organizations, which will likely both be able to proselytize to the publics they are servicing, and also to hire and fire based on religious criteria, ignoring current state and federal civil rights and employment law.

The other ridiculous objectives of Obama’s expanded faith-based initiative include reducing the number of and need for abortions, increasing the role of fathers in their childrens’ lives, and working with the National Security Council to encourage “interfaith dialogue” around the globe.

So, why is all of this just flat-out wrong?  Is it just a closed-minded, knee-jerk secular purist position not to support Obama’s increase in funding of religious organizations, even when he may have what he feels are noble, common sense goals?

I will admit a strong personal desire to see the role of religion generally diminished in our society, but I respect that merely good argument from cognitive minorities (cognitive elites?) won’t ever change everyone’s mind. So yes, the religious will always be with us. I just don’t think the government should be strengthening their position in society with taxpayer monies. It is a really bad idea, and here are some reasons why:

1. There is no real oversight of the religious groups who will receive the funding under Obama’s expanded program.

According to Joshua DuBois, who is the 26 year old head of Obama’s faith based initiative (and a Pentecostal preacher!), hiring and firing, as well as charges of proselytizing with government funds, will be looked into only on a “case by case basis.” In other words, there is no official policy prohibiting either.

Will there be any recourse if someone’s rights are not respected? What if an otherwise qualified socially conscious gay atheist (or Buddhist or Jew) is not given a job or is fired from a job helping the poor with one of these religious organizations simply because that organization objects to her homosexuality and atheism (or Buddhism or Jewish faith)?

Obama actually   left in place Bush’s executive orders specifically allowing discrimination based on the religious views espoused by the organization receiving federal funds, our tax dollars!  Maybe sensing that even so, Obama is likelier to be more conscientious of church state separation issues, some religious groups have already started grumbling about the mere prospect of being expected to abide by civil rights protections in hiring policies.

2. There is a real risk that widely respected safeguards protecting the separation of church and state will actually be overturned.

  ccording to Dubois : what they “find as they explore these issues” of church state separation, may in fact result in “a change in law and policy.”

3. There aren’t clear criteria drawing distinctions between mainline and fringe faith groups.

Who decides what religious groups get government funds? Will there be an “extremist or fringe group” category that under no circumstances would ever receive tax payer support? Who decides what religious social welfare programs are really working, and by what evidence-based criteria?

There are many organizations that I would consider to be dangerous that nonetheless engage in social welfare programs, even if their founding ideals or agendas are contra the values of our secular democracy.

Examples in my mind include the destructive cult of Scientology, which among other reprehensible things is thought to   peddle addiction recovery quackery called   Narconon ; the Mormon church, which provides a network of family counseling services which (among other things) seek to covert recovering homosexuals (   here and   here , among many examples); and even U.S. affiliates of Hamas, which operates great   social welfare programs for devout (anti-Western?) Muslims.

And there are also scores of religious denominations and leaders and new age belief systems that teach that poverty itself is a result of sin or of one’s own thinking or mental perspective. These include TV personalities such as prosperity gospeler Robert Tilton, who teaches how to   get out of poverty through the use of the Holy Spirit, and   Rod Parsely , and   Benny Hinn , all of whom reportedly operate social welfare charities, and also vile New Age gobbledygook such as Rhonda Byrne’s   The Secret , which seems to actually blame homelessness on the homeless, for unconsciously willing it into existence.)

Will Scientology or Mormonism or Robert Tilton get federal funding under Obama’s expanded faith based program? Joshua Dubois has suggested that funding of such fringe groups   will be allowed !

4. Reducing the number of abortions is a completely unworthy goal.

Speaking for myself, I think that abortion should be more widespread, not less widespread.

For the minority of us who would argue that abortion is completely licit—and that it may in fact solve some social ills—MORE births into poverty as a result of Obama’s program is a completely unworthy goal, and more abortions may benefit society. As has been argued by thinkers across the political spectrum, including the economists John Donohue at Yale and Steven Levitt at University of Chicago, one result of legal abortions has been a reduction of crime.

And even if you don’t buy that argument (as the conservative commentator   Bill Bennett did, and was lambasted for), I’d argue that abortion is not a morally wrong act that should be reduced by the work of government funded religious groups. Fetuses are not persons, even if they are human life. Generally, it is not wrong to kill them, excepting the desire of he mother to carry the fetus to term, of course. (Controversial secular ethicist Peter Singer argued this point on a recent episode of   Point of Inquiry .)

Moreover, if a goal of Obama’s expanded faith based funding is to reduce the need for abortion, would government funds go to the Church of Mormon who operates the aforementioned counseling services, a stated goal of which is also to reduce the need for abortion? How can this not be completely objectionable to a someone who values church state separation, whether or not she is religious herself? I certainly don’t want government monies (the taxes I dutifully pay) going to the Catholic Church or the Mormon Church under the guise of “reducing the need for abortion.”

5. Government funded support of religion to encourage “interfaith dialogue” is not the way to reduce religious tensions around the world.

The way to reduce religious tensions between different faith groups is not to put the full force of the U.S. government behind some faith groups and not behind others. Government funded interfaith dialogue is not the solution, especially since such dialogue is often anti-secularism. Instead, the United States should be fostering an appreciation for secularism around the world, especially the secularization of Islamic societies, which present the most serious threats to the West.

6. In a society that promotes religious liberty, tax payers should not be forced to contribute to religions they don’t support personally.

Leaving aside the abortion issue, the libertarian in me argues that a Catholic should not be forced by the U.S. government to contribute to a synagogue, a secularist shouldn’t be forced to contribute to the Church of Scientology’s fake addition recovery program. By adhering to a strict separation of church and state, our government ensures the most freedom for the most people and that no one is ever forced to support a religion he does not’t believe in. In this sense, the issue is one of religious freedom, not just of hard-line secularism. Wouldn’t there be conservative religionists who would object to their tax-payer dollars being spent on groups that advance a social gospel that is rather liberal? If you believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible, don’t you have a right to avoid contributing to a charity that does pro-gay community outreach? If you are pro-abortion (or pro-abortion rights), shouldn’t you be allowed to refrain from contributing financially to a Catholic or Mormon organization that is explicitly “pro-life” and which would use your funds to advance that agenda?

7. One of Obama’s goals, to “increase the role of fathers,” is based on pseudoscience and is tied to the destructive “pro-marriage” agenda.

The argument that “because so many single mothers live with their children in poverty, it must be due to the fact that the man is absent” confuses causation with correlation. In fact, the opposite may be true: poverty often leads to non-marriage and absent fathers, and a father staying in the picture doesn’t necessarily reduce poverty. Obama’s underlying assumption is that if we get absent fathers involved in the lives of their children, the quality of life for everyone in the picture will be increased. But this is not born out by the facts:   some research suggests that among poverty-stricken urban families, children who have absent fathers actually do better academically than do those who have both parents involved in their lives.

The money used to engage in Obama’s social engineering that privileges a possibly outmoded view of the family could be better used to fight poverty through sound policies increasing resources for education, or by funding secular social welfare programs like in the secular mixed economies of Europe, where it should be said, they don’t feel a need to discourage single motherhood (more women in France, for instance, have children   out of wedlock than do within the confines of marriage).

Moreover, the argument that a child needs a man and a woman as father- and mother- figures, and that single motherhood is harmful to children, supports an anti-woman, anti-gay conservative social agenda.

As it now stands, Obama’s expanded faith based initiative offers only more likelihood of division and church-state entanglements, civil rights violations and government funding of evangelism. It is a threat to a woman’s right to choose, and supports the anti-gay and anti-woman conservative “pro-marriage” agenda. And it is naive about the impact of interfaith dialogue abroad.

I think it behooves all secularists, whether they are personally religious or not, to oppose Obama in this regard, and not to be guilted into supporting bad policy because we think Obama is a good guy, or at least better than the last guy. I am not willing to give Obama a pass on this issue just because I generally agree with more of his agenda than I did his predecessor’s. In just a few short weeks, the President who initially inspired me and filled me, as a secularist, with tears of hope for the future, has given me my first big disappointment.