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

What's an FBO?

James Skillen


August 2, 1999

Not an FOB, that's a "friend of Bill," and not a UFO. An FBO is a "faith-based organization"—something that the two leading presidential contenders—Al Gore and George W. Bush—both want to befriend and welcome as a partner of government. What's the big deal?

E.J. Dionne Jr., a columnist for The Washington Post, describes FBOs as "religious institutions that are trying to solve social problems." Yet he is not entirely comfortable with the term and wonders if there might be a better one. The phrase FBO is useful, he admits, because it covers every kind of religion, not just Christianity. It's also better than "religiously based" and "church-based," because many FBOs are not connected with churches, synagogues, mosques or other comparable institutions.

William Safire, writing in The New York Times, explains that the shift in language from "religious" to "faith-based" may be due to a new preference for identifying "motivation" rather than "institution." Americans believe in the separation of church and state but not the separation of religious values from public life, so "faith-based" allows for the emphasis on motivation.

Dionne and Safire overlook something important, however. Why should we presume that "faith-based" properly designates only those organizations that explicitly admit to a "religious" motivation? Are the so-called "secular" social-service organizations faithless? Most organizations that do not identify themselves as faith-based or religious nonetheless believe deeply in what they are doing, and many individuals who work in so-called secular organizations do so with a religious motivation. A "secular" organization's "faith" may ultimately rest in human potential, or in the power of persuasion, or in simple self-interest, but it will be grounded in some confidence or other.

Come to think of it, why did we not think it problematic when government partnered only with NFBOs (non-faith-based organizations)? Why the sudden fascination with government and FBOs?

The answer, of course, is that the secularized, separationist interpretation of the Constitution's First Amendment has insisted on privatizing faith and religion. Government is not supposed to support religion, not even the religious motivations of individuals. What is becoming clear to contemporary Americans, however, is that faith cannot be privatized. The very conviction that faith is a private matter and that public life is religionless is itself the expression of a deep faith, of a fundamental worldview. It is not a self-evident truth or fact of history.

Once the light dawns, however, that people of faith legitimately and inescapably act on their motivations in public by serving the needy, training the jobless, and caring for children, then it won't be difficult to see that people who do these things motivated by supposedly secular convictions deserve no greater space or privilege in public life then do people motivated by faith in God. The belated attention now being given to FBOs is simply a way of welcoming those in the public square who were once told to keep their faith to themselves. No one, and certainly not government, has a right to privilege some faiths or motivations over others when it comes to partnership in public service.

We will be able to dispense with the term "FBO" quite happily when the law finally stipulates that all social-service organizations (and all schools, for that matter) shall be treated without discrimination, regardless of the type of faith or motivation that drives them. And, of course, this will mean the end to every form of discrimination against "religious faith" in favor of "secular faith."

—James W. Skillen, Executive Director
   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.”