Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Everlasting Faith-Based Initiative

Stephen Lazarus


October 4, 2004

The faith-based initiative appears to be here to stay, no matter who wins on November 2nd. John Kerry raised the eyebrows of many in the media (and startled many in his own party) recently by pledging his support for public funding for faith-based organizations. "I know there are some who say the First Amendment means faith-based organizations can't help government," he remarked. "I think they are wrong."

Kerry's endorsement of a policy Al Gore and other Democrats supported in 2000 is not entirely surprising. There are good reasons why both Democrats and Republicans can support the equal treatment of faith-based organizations in public life. Many community organizations effectively fighting poverty across America today are motivated by faith, are operated on a distinct faith basis, and employ people of faith. If elected president, John Kerry would be foolish not to invite these organizations into partnerships to help meet needs that government working on its own cannot. Just last month, the government reported that the number of people in poverty has surged by 1.3 million, even as it appears fewer people are applying for welfare. If Democrats truly want to "close the opportunity gap" and "invest in communities," as their 2004 party platform suggests, Kerry's support for faith-based organizations makes good sense.

However, support for faith-based initiatives also comes at a cost to leaders in both parties. Because the deepest roots of the faith-based initiative reforms lie fully in neither Kerry's liberalism nor Bush's conservatism, leaders of both parties must sacrifice certain ideological commitments and narrow partisan interests to gain the full benefits of this radical reform. Conservatives must accept a larger role for government to fund welfare and other necessary social services adequately. As the President himself has stated: "Government cannot be replaced by charities, but it can and should welcome them as partners." Libertarianism and the faith-based initiative do not mix.

Liberals must make room for—and not seek to restrict—the robust expression of religion in public life. Equal treatment reforms like those now being implemented in the states thanks to the Bush initiative are built upon the notion that government social programs must partner more respectfully with Methodists, Muslims, Mormons, and secular programs alike. Working now under new rules, these programs do not have to hide their religious light under a bushel as the price for receiving government funds to serve their neighborhoods.

They should also be free—as independent organizations and not arms of the government-to hire staff who share their religious missions. This is a freedom essential to all cause-oriented groups. However, many in Kerry's party have mistakenly opposed this basic right of faith-based organizations, even though it is explicitly recognized in the Civil Rights Act. The faith-based initiative and the old "no-aid" separationism of the past do not mix either, although many Democrats would like them to.

Kerry's endorsement of faith-based initiatives exposes the misinformation and myths of critics who say equal treatment for faith-based organizations is only a passing fad, or the pet policy of a Republican administration, or a crass attempt to expand or reward a party's political base. At bottom, the faith-based initiative is not the private property of any one political party. Rather, the movement for equal treatment of all faiths in public life exists because government bears inescapable responsibilities to promote the general welfare of its citizens and to protect their free exercise of religion in public life. These responsibilities outlast each administration and continue to the next. Discharging these duties represents a high calling for both candidates, and we should accept no less.

—Stephen Lazarus, Senior Policy Associate
    Center for Public Justice

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”