Religion & American politics:

Waking up to still being a faith-based nation

posted by Winnifred Fallers Sullivan

The Bush administration has widely been assumed to have significantly favored evangelical Christian perspectives and organizations in its policies. A corollary of that assumption has been that regime change would return us to our natural secular condition. Preliminary evidence suggests that the first is indeed the case (although the changes had been initiated during the Clinton administration) and that the second is unlikely.

A recent report on the State of the Law concerning the President’s Faith-Based and Community Initiative, published by the well-respected and non-sectarian web-based reporter on the initiative, The Roundtable on Religion and Social Policy, summarizes the changes that have taken place over the last eight years:

At its core, the FBCI guarantees a “level playing field” that allows FBOs to compete for social welfare funding on equal terms with non-religious organizations. This guarantee is remarkable in two respects. First, it reflects a decisive shift in the law of the Constitution’s Establishment Clause, away from a regime that excluded “pervasively sectarian” entities, and toward one that permits a far greater range of partnerships between government and FBOs. Second, the guarantee is remarkable because of the scope of administrative change it required. The prohibition on funding of “pervasively sectarian” organizations had been deeply imbedded in federal agency rules and practices, but the FBCI has succeeded in transforming that administrative structure to reflect the law’s wider acceptance of public aid for FBOs.

The report goes on to detail how this transformation was accomplished. As with other executive policies, when the President was unsuccessful in implementing his vision through legislation, he turned to executive orders:

Very soon after he took office in January of 2001, President George W. Bush issued two Executive Orders that set in motion the Faith-Based and Community Initiative. These Orders established Centers for the FBCI in the White House and core federal agencies, and directed the agency centers to identify barriers that prevented faith-based and community organizations from competing on an equal basis for federal social welfare funding. A year later, following a comprehensive survey by the agency FBCI Centers, the President issued another Executive Order, directing federal agencies to remove such barriers and guarantee equal treatment for faith-based and community organizations in federal grants and contracts. By the end of 2004, virtually all federal agencies had complied with the President’s directives. New regulations, covering the full range of federal social welfare funding programs, prohibited agencies from discriminating against FBOs based on their religious character, and ensured FBOs that they could retain their religious identity while providing publicly funded services.

While open legal issues remain, particularly with respect to the right of faith-based organizations to discriminate in hiring, there is no question that it is a remarkable accomplishment, one that would have seemed incredible to many First Amendment scholars ten years ago.

A parallel shift has occurred in the foreign policy arena with the embedding of religion in the State Department after the signing into law of the International Religious Freedom Act in 1999. The act mandated the establishment of an Office of International Religious Freedom within the Department of State, headed by an Ambassador-at-Large that acts as the principal advisor to the President and Secretary of State in matters concerning religious freedom abroad. It also mandated the establishment of the independent, bipartisan United States Commission on International Religious Freedom and a Special Adviser on International Religious Freedom at the National Security Council. An annual report is produced detailing the state of religious freedom in every country in the world—with the exception of the U.S. The President is required by the Act to punish countries that are found not to be sufficiently free. Ten years later these policies reach deep into U.S. foreign policy at every level.

Where do the new President and the Democrats stand on these questions? After the 2004 election, Democrats were widely understood not to have gotten it right about the importance of religious values for Americans. Potential candidates were supposed to learn how to talk about religion. Some tried and sounded awkward, but both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton understood this need and both spoke naturally about their respect for religion and about their own religious commitments in their campaigns. Both embraced the notion that religion belongs back in politics. On July 1, 2008, then-candidate Obama gave a major speech endorsing government partnership with faith-based organizations and promising to beef up President Bush’s efforts with the creation of a new Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. President Obama has defended his opposition to gay marriage on religious grounds. When she accepted Obama’s nomination as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton spoke of American faith in every person’s “God-given” right to live up to his or her potential. Examples could be multiplied.

Understanding Americans to be fundamentally religious is now deeply embedded in government and in our public culture. That is the default position. Not secularism. Chaplaincies are proliferating across the U.S. to serve Americans in the military, in hospitals, in colleges, in the workplace—and in crisis situations. While President Obama is careful to speak always with respect for people who are not religious, all the evidence suggests that we are still a faith-based nation.

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One Response to “Waking up to still being a faith-based nation”

  1. avatar David Slakter says:

    I would like to see a reference to someone stating seriously the claim and corollary that Ms. Sullivan mentions in the first paragraph. While ‘secular’ is a multiply ambiguous term, Ms. Sullivan means by it here only a state in which religion has no role in government policy or public life. If one treats this as the only plausible definition of ‘secular,’ then the term will of course fail to describe any modern presidential administration.

    Ms. Sullivan also makes a significant mistake when she says that “Understanding Americans to be fundamentally religious is now deeply embedded in government and in our public culture,” and that this is inherently contrary to secularism. Since secularism does not entail a denial of the fact that some people are religious, her claim is clearly false.

    Finally, her distinction between a “faith-based” nation and a secular one trades on a popular elision of the inherent and intractable differences among competing theologies. (The faith which illuminates the the conservative Muslim’s view of the nation will provide a markedly different picture from that provided by the liberal Baptist’s.) This elision of course is a consequence of the prevailing, secularist assumption that it is wrong, at the level of government, to privilege the members of one religious group over those of others based solely upon religious considerations. If Ms. Sullivan wishes to demonstrate that America and its citizens are not secular in this sense, further evidence is required.

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