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

Which Candidate Will Go First?

Stanley Carlson-Thies


August 3, 2007
Isn’t it a surprise that those many Democrats and Republicans running for President have said virtually nothing about the faith-based and community initiative?  Maybe silence is not so bad, given all the unenlightened shouting on the issue the past half-dozen years.  Still, critical issues are at stake, and the next President won’t be able to escape decisions about how the government treats faith-based social services.  Besides, you’d think that these candidates would regard the initiative as a natural one for discussion.

Take Republican candidates Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, and Tommy Thompson.  Why not grab onto a topic that combines religion, family, neighborly help, and improving social programs?  And isn’t this the religion issue that even tough-guy candidates Rudy Guiliani and John McCain can discuss without appearing either too religious or too indifferent to faith?

As Democrats Barack Obama and John Edwards set out their anti-poverty agendas and applaud the important work of grassroots groups across the land, why hasn’t either one followed the lead of Democratic candidate Al Gore, who in 1999 endorsed Charitable Choice even before Republican candidate George W. Bush made his big speech on the topic? Hillary Clinton has warm words for faith-inspired service, and her husband’s administration took some positive action, so isn’t this an issue that comes naturally to her? 

Besides, with Democrats determined somehow to overcome the “religion gap” by linking their positions with the religious convictions that animate so many citizens, the faith-based initiative would seem a perfect issue.  It’s a pro-religion policy that emphasizes equal treatment and safeguarding religious freedom, not the divisive choices of school prayer, abortion, and stem cell research.

But then again, perhaps the candidates are biding their time because they realize that the faith-based and community initiative cannot avoid hard choices.  For it concerns vital matters of government policy, the structure of our society, and the patterns we devise so that, despite our differences, we can live well together.
The initiative, after all, is not simply about faith-based organizations serving others, but focuses on how the government treats those organizations.  It is a policy initiative aimed at ensuring that government is a help, not a hindrance, to faith-based and community groups.  The goal is fruitful interaction in a society in which the government neither ignores nor harms civil-society groups that reach out to the poor and distressed.

Maintaining the initiative’s path of reforms requires making choices on which voters differ, sometimes vehemently.  Being serious about the initiative takes more than assuring faith-based organizations that the government warmly welcomes them — that is, if they can and will fit into a secularizing straitjacket.  Religious staffing is just the most obvious matter requiring contentious decisions.

Yet, precisely because vital and difficult choices are at stake, political leaders and candidates, certainly for the presidency, owe us an accounting.  Will they maintain the reforms that safeguard the faith of faith-based organizations, or take us back to the old status quo while trying to make us believe that nothing in the old system needed fixing?  Is their vision of diversity one in which organizations that operate in the public square must adopt common-denominator standards, or are they committed to a civil society comprised of diverse organizations that enable citizens to live out their differing convictions as their contributions to the common good?

Candidates won’t win easy applause by talking about the faith-based initiative, but whoever wins the presidency won’t be able to avoid key decisions.  So shouldn’t we demand that they tell us their visions for this vital matter of religion and the public square?

—Stanley W. Carlson-Thies, Director of Social Policy Studies
   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.”