Senator Obama - Faith into Action
By Douglas W. Kmiec
(Catholic Online) - Senator Obama has announced that he intends to create a Council For Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
Having been privileged to give some advance guidance for this worthy idea, it is exciting to watch it become part of the public record.
An old idea talked about by George W. Bush and even "his thousand points of light" father?
Well, yes, talked about; but by the writing of Bush's own staff, regrettably, not done. Obama says he's different and this will be a "critical part of his administration." The proof will be in the doing, of course, but this much is plain: Senator Obama has direct experience. He has personally rolled up his sleeves as a community organizer to meet the needs of the unemployed in south Chicago, for example.
The incumbent administration raised expectations only to have them disappointed by tax cuts for the wealthiest families and funding cuts for the poorest; by conducting faith-based conferences that seemed more for friends of the Republican Party than those in need; and by issuing executive orders and directives deliberately calculated to raise unnecessary constitutional clash between church and state.
With great disappointment, the Bush efforts yielded division and acrimony rather than unity and understanding.
Why won't the same happen with Senator Obama?
The answer I believe lies in the Senator's own Christian journey. His is a lived faith that both prays and works - hard. Much depends on Grace, of course, but Obama also understands that neighborhood organizations work because people who live together and worship together not only know each other's needs, but meet them.
When our neighbors commit to help, they are less apt to let us down because, well, we know each other by name.
Catholics call this the principle of subsidiarity -- a principle that reflects that one should never ever take to a higher level that which can be more effectively done below. Churches and synagogues and temples and mosques don't stand apart from life's difficulty, they embrace it with the confidence that says with belief nothing is impossible.
Envying his gift of empathy and oral presentation, Senator McCain is sometimes heard to say that Senator Obama only operates at a high level of generality or in abstraction. There is nothing abstract about his proposed new Council. One of the things the Bush folks never figured out was why their project generated little participation.
In addition to misguided funding priorities that hardly heard "the cry of the poor" generally,somehow Washington didn't notice that poverty was often greatest in rural areas. In addition, small faith-based groups -- whether in city or country town -- simply didn't have the knowledge or wherewithal to know how to navigate the federal bureaucracy.
As a consequence, the principal beneficiaries of federal grants were often the large social service organizations that had always been beneficiaries of federal money.
While Catholic Charities and Lutheran Services, for example, do excellent work they simply are not structured always to reach down and find those individuals who because of illness or disability or intimidation born of a lack of educational opportunity simply do not know the fine work of those major charitable enterprises.
Since even major banks need branch offices and ATM machines to reach customers, logic might have conveyed that those requiring our most basic help are not any different.
Obama intends to take our most capable charitable entities and train them to train, so that a small storefront church or mosque or family support Center will be within reach of those who might otherwise be overlooked. Again, to make use of the Catholic idiom -subsidiarity does not mean big, distant government pats local organizations on the head and just says "good job, keep it up."
Subsidiarity is always twinned with solidarity which reminds us that all of us - regardless of our politics -- are intimately connected. We have an obligation to meet the needs of the "least of these" - the poor, the family displaced from its home, the working person seeking a new skill or opportunity.
There are two other aspects of the Obama program that will make it distinctive. First, Senator Obama is truly dedicated to closing the education gap experienced by the less privileged children of every race and ethnicity. As the senator pointed out, "many children simply can't read or perform math at their grade level" and this problem magnifies during the summer months when children are away from school.
Neighborhood programs are ideal for providing summer learning opportunities, but these too need duplication in remote farming areas as well. Finally, Senator Obama does not view the proposed Council as a covert way for distorting the respect that church and state should have for each other. When faith initiatives are wrongly thought of as a partisan tool, they sometimes end up also having the unseemly partisan objective of advancing a favored faith conception, or worse, playing off one person's religious freedom against another. A President Obama will have none of that, nor should he. It is an unworthy and unnecessary distraction, and it can be easily avoided by simply asking all participants o observe federal, state and local civil rights laws. Now, to be sure, particular difficulties can crop up, and as the founders knew, government must treat religious belief and practice with a gentle hand. Different religious traditions do interact with the larger culture differently. For example, because of the apostolic witness and the teaching of the Church related to it, there is only a male priesthood in the Catholic Church. Does this eliminate Catholic participation? Hardly. Well-settled principles provide for a ministerial exception as part of the civil rights law itself. Only those interested in the partisan purpose of dividing one faith from another would think otherwise. Certainly, this much is true: religious organizations seldom see it as their calling to only serve soup or provide shelter or tutor those who worship in the same pew and in the same congregation. Senator Obama is more interested in helping people of all faiths, and of no faith, be of service to each other. And in that ennobling purpose is a true echo of those words we heard another young man who would be President, this man a Catholic, who said so well and so eloquently that "here on earth, God's work must truly be our own."
Douglas W. Kmiec is the Chair & Professor of Constitutional Law Pepperdine University and Former Dean & St. Thomas More Professor of Law, The Catholic University Of America