07/09/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Do We Really Need A 'Faith-Based' Initiative?

I nearly spilled my cornflakes this morning when I read an Associated Press story asserting that U.S. Sen. Barack Obama planned to not only expand the "faith-based" initiative but apparently allow religious groups taking part in it to receive tax money yet still discriminate on the grounds of religion when hiring staff.

Obama's staff quickly clarified things. They insist he won't back tax-funded religious discrimination. That's good to know, and I look forward to learning more the specifics of the proposal. They say the Devil is in the details. When it comes to the faith-based initiative, I'd rather just let the Devil have the details, along with the entire initiative.

No, I'm not a fan of the faith-based initiative. That may seem odd, as I am a Christian minister. Let's just say I come from the old school and take what these days is becoming an unusual view: Religion should pay its own way in the world. If Pastor Bob wants to start a ministry, good for Pastor Bob. Let Pastor Bob's congregation pay for it.

The problem with the faith-based initiative is that it's a euphemism. We used to call such things "taxpayer-supported religion." Of course, no one would support it if it were called that. After all, the idea of taxing people to pay for religion is scary. It's what got folks so riled up back in the colonial period. No one wanted to pay taxes to support some other person's religion.

No one wants to pay them today, either. Yet increasingly we are being asked to do so. Eager to appear faith friendly, candidates in both parties are increasingly upping the ante for how much they plan to dole out to religion if elected.

Under the Bush administration, the faith-based payoff reached new depths in venality and cynicism. Staffers in the White House faith-based office appeared at political rallies alongside House and Senate candidates in tight races, implying that the right vote would lead to a cascade of new money for religion.

But it never did. There was no new money. Disillusioned faith-based staffer David Kuo pointed out in his book Tempting Faith that Bush never proposed any new funding for these programs. He just sliced the pie slightly differently to reward some of his fundamentalist allies, virtually the only sub-group that still sticks by his sinking presidency.

Under Bush, money poured into "abstinence-only" sex education programs that study after study has shown are not effective. Grants were given to groups based on how well connected they were and the theology they espoused, not how effective they were.

The final kick in the head came when John J. DiIulio, the first White House "faith czar," blithely admitted in his book Godly Republic that there is no evidence that faith-based groups do a better job than their secular counterparts. Of course, none of this mattered to DiIulio. He was still for keeping the funding spigot on full blast.

If we have to have a faith-based initiative, one that does not allow proselytism on the taxpayer's dime and that is free of religious discrimination, it's better than one that does these things. Still, I wish a presidential candidate would have the gumption to ask what has become a forbidden question: Do we need a faith-based initiative at all?

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State in Washington, D.C. (