Monday, February 9, 2009

Obama to Expand Faith-Based Office, Yet With Changes

According to the New York Times on Thursday:

WASHINGTON — President Obama signed an executive order Thursday to create a revamped White House office for religion-based and neighborhood programs, expanding an initiative started by the Bush administration that provides government support — and financing — to religious and charitable organizations that deliver social services....In announcing the expansion of the religion office, Mr. Obama did not settle the biggest question: Can religious groups that receive federal money for social service programs hire only those who share their faith?

The Bush administration said yes. But many religious groups and others that are concerned about employment discrimination and protecting the separation of church and state had pushed hard for Mr. Obama to repeal the Bush policies.

Meanwhile, other religious groups were lobbying to preserve their right to use religion as a criterion in hiring. Some religious social service providers warned they might stop working with the government if they were forced to change policies.

Instead of deciding the issue, the president called Thursday for a legal review of the policy case by case before determining whether religious groups can receive government money and selectively hire employees based on their religious beliefs.

The faith-based initiative of the Bush era presented many encouraging possibilities.  Yet it appears that it also set up an inevitable dilemma. While it is always tempting for the church to take money whereever it can find it, it seems prudent that we might want to reconsider this particular open hand. Why would a church willingly sacrifice its principles and convictions to governmental restrictions just for the sake of a financial benefit to an otherwise worthy social endeavor? Certainly the liberal edge of the 'faith community' will have no difficulty here. Yet for confessionally-minded Lutherans this is an area from which we can easily walk away.  

One side concern: If such restrictions are placed upon this program, will the sentiment spill over into chaplaincy programs in other governmental areas? We saw not so long ago how the military tried to restrict the prayers of its chaplains. Could more be coming?  


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