March News & Notes

Published by MNA on

By George Kane

Head shot of George, smiling in jacket and tie.

The first vote of the 111th Congress with significance to the separation of church and state was a success, but not everyone on the religious right realized that they had suffered a defeat. One of the provisions of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was originally to be $10 billion for repairs and facility construction at eligible colleges. Funds were not to be available for theological seminaries, or at secular colleges for buildings used for religious instruction. Republican Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina offered an amendment “to allow the free exercise of religion at institutions of higher education that receive (repair and reconstruction) funding.” In other words, the amendment would have opened up the government funding to religious education.

The DeMint amendment was defeated on party lines, 54 – 43. Senator Snowe of Maine was the only Republican to vote nay. The Secular Coalition for America thanked the Senate for upholding the separation of church and state, but the executive director of the American Center of Law and Justice, the leading litigation group of the religious right, called it a wash. To placate Republicans, who wanted to reduce the recovery bill’s expenditures by $100 Billion, the Senate dropped all funding for college reconstruction. On his weekday radio program, Jay Sekulow reported that this made the “discrimination against Christianity” moot. He reported that the reconciliation of the House and Senate versions could not add the funds back in, because the reconciliation only resolved differences in funding, and could not add items that were absent in either version.

But don’t count your chickens, Jay! The funds were slipped in through the back door. The reconciled bill provided $39.5 billion to states to “backfill” cuts that have been made to their 2008 or 2009 education budgets. In restoring funds cut from public college budgets, the allocation that states were supposed to use for financial aid and operating costs was expanded and repurposed, so that colleges can also use the funds for facilities – but only at public institutions.

President Obama used the occasion of the National Prayer Breakfast to announce his appointees to remake Bush’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiative. The new Executive Director is Joshua DuBois, a former Pentecostal pastor who headed religious outreach for Obama’s Senate office and presidential campaign. He will be advised by the 15-member Council of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships (see insert).

Council of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships The Rev. Jim Wallis, executive director of Sojourners Frank Page, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention Joel C. Hunter, Pastor of the Megachurch of Lakeland, Fla. The Rev. Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA Bishop Vashti McKenzie of the African Methodist Episcopal Church Richard Stearns, president of World Vision, a Christian humanitarian organization Rabbi David N. Saperstein, director of Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, The Rev. Otis Moss Jr., pastor emeritus, Olivet Institutional Baptist Church Eboo Patel, executive director of Interfaith Youth Corps William J. Shaw, president of the National Baptist Convention Melissa Rogers, director of Wake Forest School of Divinity Center for Religion and Public Affairs Arturo Chavez, president and CEO of the Mexican American Cultural Center Diane Baillargeon, president and CEO, Seedco, a secular job-training program Judith N. Vredenburgh, president and CEO of Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America Fred Davie, president, Public/Private Ventures, a secular nonprofit charity

As an atheist, I find in this lineup little reason to celebrate. It is not exclusively focused on conservative Protestants, the way Bush’s Faith-Based Initiative was, and the bottom four appointees come from secular charities. Fred Davie is even gay, but he has a divinity degree. But the appointments are clearly intended to create a partnership between religion and government, as Obama promised during the campaign, to strengthen religion and to give it a role in setting the national agenda.

There are four priorities that Obama set for the Council in his address to the Prayer Breakfast:

  1. Enlisting faith and community groups in economic recovery efforts
  2. Reducing abortions
  3. Encouraging responsible fatherhood
  4. Improving interfaith relations, including in the Muslim world

“Encouraging responsible fatherhood” is a nice idea, but otherwise I again find nothing in these goals for an atheist to celebrate. Goal #1 is just entangling government and religion. “Reducing abortions” has been a stated goal of every president, I think, since the Roe decision. But whether the number of abortions goes up or down, I don’t think that one can draw any conclusions about whether the resulting change in the quality of life will be for better or worse. And it is conspicuous that Obama calls for improving interfaith relations, but not relations with those of no faith.

During the campaign, Obama had at least given a nod to church/state separation by promising that faith-based organizations would not be eligible for government funding if they practiced religious discrimination in employment. That requirement has been dropped.

But on the plus side, Obama rescinded Bush’s presidential decree banning foreign aid funds to any program that even mentions abortion as an option. This so-called “Mexico City Decree” was first instituted by Ronald Reagan, then rescinded by Bill Clinton, and then reinstated by George W. Bush. I would like to see Congress decide this with a law, rather than leaving such an important clause of foreign policy to be decided solely by the party designation of the president.

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