Obama on Faith-Based Welfare

Recently I discussed Barack Obama’s comments about abortion in Christianity Today. Now I want to turn to Obama’s comments about faith in general and about the tax funding of religious groups. The article is from Christianity Today, and the interview, “Q&A: Barack Obama,” conducted by Sarah Pulliam and Ted Olsen, was published on January 23.

Obama makes clear that he is deeply religious:

I am a Christian, and I am a devout Christian. I believe in the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I believe that that faith gives me a path to be cleansed of sin and have eternal life. But most importantly, I believe in the example that Jesus set by feeding the hungry and healing the sick and always prioritizing the least of these over the powerful. … Accepting Jesus Christ in my life has been a powerful guide for my conduct and my values and my ideals.

Subscription to the Christian faith is common among U.S. presidents. The problem arises when a Christian politician attempts to impose Christian theology by force of law. Clearly, Obama is restrained by his own party and political beliefs from traveling too far down the path toward faith-based politics. However, he also clearly tries to support the standard Democratic agenda with Christian beliefs.

In the following comment, Obama does not make clear whether he wants to use tax dollars for the programs in question:

I think it is important for us to encourage churches and congregations all across the country to involve themselves in rebuilding communities. One of the things I have consistently argued is that we can structure faith-based programs that prove to be successful — like substance abuse or prison ministries — without violating church and state. We should make sure they are rebuilding the lives of people even if they’re not members of a particular congregation. That’s the kind of involvement that I think many churches are pursuing, including my own.

However, Obama does say that he sees no inherent problem with spending tax dollars on religious groups. Christianity Today asked, “So would you keep the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives open or restructure it?” Obama answers:

You know, what I’d like to do is I’d like to see how it’s been operating. One of the things that I think churches have to be mindful of is that if the federal government starts paying the piper, then they get to call the tune. It can, over the long term, be an encroachment on religious freedom. So, I want to see how moneys have been allocated through that office before I make a firm commitment in terms of sustaining practices that may not have worked as well as they should have.

Obama is rightly concerned about political interference in religion, but he does not believe that spending tax dollars on religious groups will necessarily create that problem.

However, Obama completely ignores the other side of the problem: what about the rights of people who do not wish to fund religious organizations? Religious freedom entails the right not to support religious groups against one’s choice.

The example of prison ministry has broader implications. I have no problem with Christian ministry in prisons — so long as it is voluntary for prisoners, prisoners have equal access to secular alternatives, and no tax dollars are involved. Obama talks about Christians “rebuilding the lives of people even if they’re not members of a particular congregation.” Is this Obama’s attitude also with faith-based welfare? But what about people who are not members of any religious congregation? An explicitly religious group that spends tax dollars necessarily promotes a religious message, however subtly. And the religious group itself benefits from the tax dollars. Again, people have the right not to support such things.