Faith-Based Contradiction

"Faith-Based Discrimination." That's the snarky title of the recent New York Times editorial on the Bush-era policy known as "faith-based initiatives."

The Times is irked because the President has not yet "made good on his promise" to overturn what they deem a "constitutionally suspect" aspect of the Bush policy. What's really irksome is the New York Times' contempt for religious freedom.

Faith-based initiatives have always been controversial, even among conservatives. The basic idea was to make federal dollars (that is, taxpayer money collected by Washington) available to private religious charities who offer various social services. The thinking was that if they can feed the hungry and house the homeless, why not let them compete for federal dollars?

Some conservatives welcomed this as a step toward privatization, in which care for the needy would be returned to the private sector where it belongs. But others warned that, eventually, it would lead, not to privatization, but to government control of private charities.

To address these concerns, the Bush Administration insured that religious charities could continue using religious criteria in hiring. A Baptist charity wouldn't be required to hire, say, an atheist.

One big problem was that the rule protecting religious charities was preserved in a mere "memo" produced by the Justice Department's Office of Legal Council. So it could easily be sent to the paper shredder by the next administration.

It didn't take long. President Obama has promised to reverse this policy. Now that Obama's in charge, the New York Times is willing to let federal dollars go to private charities. But they don't want religious charities to commit religion when using the money:

As a candidate, Mr. Obama drew the right line. Effective social service programs should not be ineligible for federal dollars just because they have a religious affiliation. But they should be required to abide by the same anti-discrimination laws as everyone else. Public money should not be used to pay for discrimination.

"Discrimination" as used by the New York Times editorial page implies a moral evil, such as discriminating against an applicant based on something irrelevant, like the color of their skin. If a bank has two candidates for a teller job, one white and one black, and the bank hires the white candidate even though the black candidate is more qualified, we would suspect unjust discrimination.

And that's why the Times' use of "discrimination" here is perverse: it's essential to most religious organizations to be able to use religious criteria in hiring. For many of them, the religious views of their employees could not be more relevant.

Does the Catholic Church "discriminate" unjustly by requiring that priests be Catholic? Surely not.

Of course, some might argue that social services are different from the work of a priest. A priest has to perform explicit religious duties, such as celebrate Mass and hear confessions. But serving food in a soup-kitchen isn't like that. Obviously you can put red potatoes and Salisbury steak on a plate whether you're Hindu, Pentecostal, Sunni Muslim, or none of the above. The religious views of the server are irrelevant to the job, so the argument goes; therefore, "discriminating" against them is unjust.

I imagine that the New York Times editors think this way, but it misses the point. Sure, a government agency may be able to spell out specific services-health care, housing, counseling, and so forth-that religious organizations could provide. And the agency might be able to distinguish these services from more explicitly religious activities like hearing confession. And sure, some nominally religious groups may be fine hiring people who don't share their religious views-including perhaps the "religious groups" who are calling on President Obama to reverse the Bush policy. But organizations that take their religion seriously don't all agree that individual jobs can be compartmentalized so easily. Nor do they think that their mission ought to be so compartmentalized.

Some religious groups believe that what you do and why you do it are both important. Some believe that theology permeates everything from preaching the gospel to doing laundry. Some believe that one reason they're so effective is because of the religious aspects of their work. Some believe that hiring religious dissenters corrupts their mission. And so forth.

Perhaps some day Congress will enshrine the Bush memo in law, so that these commitments won't be at risk when one administration passes to the next. Until that day comes, however, charities that take their religion seriously should look askance at funding that passes through the federal treasury. In the short run, it might help their bottom line. But in the long run, they may just lose their religion.

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