08/05/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Ending The Evangelical Monopoly On Faith

Liberal and progressive Christians get queasy when you start talking about faith-based initiatives. We've always liked the separation of church and state.

We value our constitutionally protected right to assume a prophetic stance toward any powers and principalities, especially those represented by powerful empires. We don't mind fussing at the government, but we sure don't want the government messing with us. Thomas Jefferson may have referred to it as "a wall" but it was always more like a permeable membrane favoring religion's option to challenge policy and politicians.

When Obama started talking about FBOs, we shivered. And not in a good way.

Since the rise of the Christian Right and the burgeoning political clout of evangelical Christians, we're even more suspicious of attempts to blur the line between God and Government. We became convinced that politics favored Christian expressions whose social and theological commitments differ radically from ours. George Bush's overt preference for the Christian Right didn't really make us comfortable with attempts at Faith-Based Initiatives.

What we have seen under Bush's FBO program is a decided preference to fund conservative evangelical outreaches that were allowed to proselytize and to escape governmental oversight, hiring and offering services based on faith commitments.

As of 2004, no non-Christian projects had been funded by the government. What happened to all the other faiths?

Chuck Colson's Prison Fellowship Ministries is the poster child for what can go wrong with FBOs. In June, 2006, U.S. District Judge Robert W. Pratt ruled that a faith based-program at a Newton , Iowa prison called InnerChange, operated by Colson's Prison Fellowship Ministries, unconstitutionally used tax money to evangelize inmates and to offer special privileges for those who accepted conservative Christian teachings.

And then there's that book by David Kuo, a former Bush White House Deputy Director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction, claims that the Republican Party hijacked and manipulated faith organizations to ensure their support of Republican candidates. He also claims that The Office regularly failed to honor promises of financial support.

As Alex Koppelman and Mayhill Fowler point out, Obama's Faith-Based initiative is almost the opposite of Bush's program.

Obama wants to restore the constitutional safeguards that the Bush program trashed courting the evangelicals. No proseltyzing, no faith-based hiring practices, no faith-based service preferences. This is what Obama means when he emphasizes the secular nature of faith-based organizations and initiatives. We liberal Christians have long been active in secular programs, even though driven by faith commitments. If the rules are applied fairly to all flavors of Christianity, as well as to all flavors of other traditions, I think this is something liberal Christian communities can support.

Second, Obama's position takes the delivery of federal monies so seriously that he promises to assist FBOs in grant applications and grassroots organizing. This is not only a dramatic commitment compared to Bush's default, it's a dramatic commitment compared to Al Gore's sorta vague and tepid promise to offer FBOs "a place at the table," without offering any specifics about what that might mean.

Third, and most exciting to me, is that Obama has a vision of interfaith cooperation that outstrips anything previous administrations or other presidential candidates have proposed. "What I'm saying is that we all have to work together -- Christian and Jew, Hindu and Muslim; believer and non-believer alike -- to meet the challenges of the 21st century," Obama said in Zanesville. And he's continued to sound the theme that American Christians, American Jews, American Muslims, and Americans of other faiths or no faith at all share a common hope and a common vision.

And believe me, there's nothing more likely to put an end to proselytizing than being involved in an interfaith partnership. Internal watch-dogging would be built right into that kind of deal.

Christians of all stripes will continue to ask whether a faith-based secular program is an oxymoron. Christians of all stripes will rightly continue to ask whether we can serve two masters.

But, of all the programs to come down the pike, Obama's offers the best rationale for hope.