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Change Believers can Believe In? Obama's Leap of Faith

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Senator Obama's announcement to expand President Bush's Faith-Based Initiative returns attention to a heated public debate about the role of religion in government. Negative reactions from the left and the right demonstrate that a liberal candidate engaging religion will not ease the polarized positions between secular liberals and the religious right. With this ever heightened animosity, can Senator Obama's Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships be what he calls the "moral center" of his administration?

Critics are right to point out problems that the current administration's Faith-Based initiative has yet to resolve. To date the office has overwhelmingly funded conservative Protestant and Evangelical Christians. Minority religious communities have been neglected. How the initiative stands up to our constitutional separation of church and state remains mired in the courts. And the question of where to draw the line between faith as a component of good citizenship and self-help, as opposed to proselytizing, is tricky business.

Senator Obama's background as a community-organizer could very well enable him to leverage the interest and commitment of people from religious communities to define and engage his call for "moral center." To do this, his plan will need to encourage partnerships between a wide range of local religious groups and their secular counterparts. Despite the vociferous cries from the far reaches of the left and right, there appears to be a growing recognition that these interfaith partnerships are both possible and effective. In fact, our recent surveys of religious leaders from politically, religiously, and culturally diverse backgrounds found that 70% of leaders believe working across religious lines improves their effectiveness as leaders. Nearly 100% believed that such partnerships improve relations across communities.

Obama's re-imagination of the faith-based initiative is a healthy step in the right direction. By including neighborhood partnerships as a strategical focus, Obama is using his community organizing knowledge to highlight an important sociological fact: faith-based organizing happens in particular localities, where partnerships create powerful social networks that help the common good.

But two major sticking points remain. First, how will the program keep religious groups from proselytizing, or only serving their own? Second, how can a government program that gives funds to religion do so under the rubric of a church-state separation?

One strategy is to require religious groups that receive government funds to work with religious communities from faiths different than their own. Instead of funding a church to feed the homeless, fund the church and the mosque across the street to feed the homeless together. Instead of funding a synagogue's domestic violence program, fund a Jewish-Hindu-Muslim program that battles domestic violence. Instead of a blank check to a religious group, encourage them to share funding, and programs, with similar Jewish and Muslim projects. This way, every constituency will feel safe and be cared for.

This is called interfaith partnership. It is the awareness and practical acceptance of religious diversity, and the mutual commitment by those involved to learn about one another, respect differences, and work together for the common good. Faith communities are increasingly articulate about their unique aspirations and commitments to serve those in need across religious lines. They are likewise required to do so by law if funded by the government. Therefore they can certainly work with religious others to serve all people and fulfill their religious and legal obligations.

Encouraging or requiring these kinds of interfaith partnerships will have serious positive effects. First, diverse religious communities will learn about each other while simultaneously helping those in need. Economic and social partnerships foster tolerance and allow for communities to remain religiously distinct. Imagine: through partnerships for the common good religious groups will learn that there is indeed a common good to work towards.

Second, the program will stimulate civic participation and build social capital, both key components in fostering American democracy. Social scientists recognize this process, but also argue that groups can grow dangerously insular and polarized. The interfaith requirement will encourage religious organizations to reach out to one another, bridging social, political, and cultural divides.

Third, the danger of proselytizing and social service exclusion by government funded groups will be reduced. This is indeed where the question of church/state separation is the most serious. With the likes of Billy Graham calling Islam an evil religion, and then seeking to "help" Muslims, the danger is real. But by symbiotically partnering every Christian group with a Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist group they will keep each other in check . Interfaith helps safeguard the constitution.

Fourth, while the Faith-Based initiative will remain controversial, the interfaith component will remind both parties of imperatives we all agree upon. By insisting that every religious community receive equal share in the program, something that is now not even symbolically attempted, there is protection against the tyranny of any one "church" influencing the state: the reason for our constitution's clause. This goes to the heart of earlier court rulings against Bush's initiative.

But will it work? Will conservative Christians, not to mention Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and Buddhists work together? Again, or experience working in Chicago and New York, is that religiously different groups can work well together, in spite of political and theological differences. This is counter intuitive to both liberal and conservative commentators who would like to think we have a "culture war" on our hands. Instead, on the ground, interfaith works well.

This interfaith strategy is hinted at in Obama's plan: thinking about faith-based projects in terms of neighborhoods and partnerships leads one to conclude that it should be an interfaith venture. We live in the most religiously diverse nation in the world. As a nation, we have always argued, both constitutionally and historically. that diversity is the source and dynamism of our democratic tradition. An interfaith approach to the Faith Based Initiative will significantly enhance our collective resources to reach disenfranchised and immigrant communities and will simultaneously foster tolerance and civic participation. What better way to bolster our tradition of civic engagement as the engagement of citizens across lines of difference?

Many on the left fear Obama's plan as a political stunt to woo evangelical voters. But something greater is possible: a new framework that engages the populace across the political spectrum. This could teach us all a great deal about working together. If the Faith-Based initiative is legitimately for all, then all faiths can legitimately work together. The step of an uncomfortable partnership with those religiously and politically different from oneself takes a courageous leap of faith. It would be a patriotic one, as well.

Matthew Weiner is the Director of Programming at the Interfaith Center of New York. Travis Rejman is Executive Director of the Goldin Institute based in Chicago.