Obama and Faith: Old Wine, New Bottle

Obama’s speech today has gotten excellent reviews, and justifiably so. But looking at it, it’s not really anything new.

Consider this report from Beliefnet (h/t Sullivan):

Obama’s announcement today about wanting to expand President Bush’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives into what he’s calling a President’s Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships . . . is so significant. Not only is Obama showing how faith would shape policy in his administration, he’s being so bold as to criticize Bush’s faith-based program for not going far enough in opening the federal social services spigot to churches and other faith-based groups.

In effect, he’s out-Bushing George W. Bush in one of the President’s specialty areas–connecting faith and public policy.

For this, Sullivan calls Obama (somewhat flippantly) the “Christianist-in-Chief” and says that this report is “hard to disagree with.” Well, watch me.

Ever since the Great Society, government has been “opening the spigot” to churches and other faith-based groups. Groups here in southern California like Catholic Charities and the Jewish Federation routinely receive very high proportions of their budgets from government grants–sometimes even greater than 50%.

Progressives have been partnering with faith-based groups long before George Bush claimed to be born-again. The biggest difference with Bush was twofold: 1) he suggested that he would funnel money to faith-based groups for programs involving active proselytization, which is unconstitutional; and 2) he actually used the program to support groups in order to generate support for Republicans, which might have been illegal.

Obama made it very clear that he would do no such thing: he’s no more a “Christianist” than any policy wonk who contracts with faith-based social services providers to provide social service.

So what’s new? The fact that he is saying it, that he is out front with it, that he is sending a cultural signal that he embraces it. In that sense, it is both good policy and good politics. And as the Beliefnet story makes clear, it puts McCain in a box because for him to do something similar would be transparently opportunistic.

But let’s make it clear that Obama isn’t “connecting faith and public policy.” Progressives have been doing this for a long time.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.