The struggle over government funding for Faith-Based organizations is back in the news as critics of such funding are calling on the President to keep a pledge he made during the campaign in a speech in Zanesville, Ohio. He said, "If you get a federal grant, you can’t use that 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 religion."
According to this morning’s Washington Post, President Obama has not overturned Bush era policies that conflict with that pledge and he is now getting pressure from his left, from groups like Americans United for the Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union to do so. On the other hand, religious groups receiving grants worry about the government sticking its nose into their organizations.
Now, one’s man proselytizing is another man’s evangelization. But, that is really the easy part of the equation. I recall Cardinal Hickey once explaining to a reporter why he was spending so much money keeping inner-city schools open even though most of the students were not even Catholic. "We don’t help the poor because they’re Catholic," the cardinal said. "We help them because we are Catholic." But, as any serious student of evangelization will tell you, it is precisely this phenomenon, of meeting someone who lives their humanity different because of their encounter with Christ, that is the most effective way to evangelize. And evangelization is to a Christian like air to the body: We are always evangelizing. Even when we are behaving badly, we are still evangelizing, we are just doing it badly. Others will see our hypocrisy, our lack of compassion, our lack of unity and conclude that they want nothing to do with a Church whose members behave so. Conversely, when an ill person is tended by a Sister of Charity, that sister's hands become the healing hands of the Master.
There is no neat way to define and differentiate "proselytizing." Some will bring legal action on one side of the divide or the other and the courts will have to invoke the pornography rule: They will know it when they see it.
The thornier issue has to do with hiring practices. This issue is thorny because the First Amendment is thorny, consisting of two sometimes conflicting goals. On the one hand, the First Amendment seeks to free churches from all manner of government interference. Secondly, the Amendment seeks to keep religion and the state separate. Some liberals argue that the best way to enforce both aspects of the Amendment is to shut down the Faith-Based Office entirely. After all, no one is entitled to government funding.
There are two reasons to oppose this First Amendment absolutism, the first principled and the second practical. One, banning aid to religious organizations discriminates against religious organizations in favor of secular ones. Second, the nation’s political branches have decided that faith-based organizations are more likely to succeed in addressing some of the nation’s ills. But, if you keep the Faith-Based Office, where then do you draw the First Amendment’s lines, especially when it comes to hiring?
You cannot have a Catholic organization unless you have Catholics, or a Methodist one unless you have Methodists. This is one of the principal lessons of James Tunstead Burthchaell’s magisterial book "The Dying of the Light" about how religious colleges and universities lost their religious identity. But, neither do we want government funds turning into an ecclesial slush-fund for hiring a pastor’s buddies. The best answer maybe to use the rules governing affirmative action in the hiring of minorities and apply them to the issue of hiring by faith-based organizations that receive federal funds. No such organization can hire incompetents just because they share the faith, but the employer can consider a person’s faith as a plus, alongside other factors.
The difficulty in drawing a bright line when applying the First Amendment is that neither the amendment, nor life itself, present such bright lines in outline to be filled in by policy makers or judges. There are good arguments and legitimate concerns on all sides. The issues are politically entangled because the human heart is a complicated entanglement of different motivations and values and our society reflects that. The best solution for the Obama administration is a policy that pleases nobody, at least not the absolutists on either side of the issue. Sometimes, honesty trumps clarity, and the muddy solution is the most truthful.