Obama on Faith-Based Programs and Separation of Church and State

I’ve often both expressed some displeasure with the frequency with which religion plays a part in Obama’s campaign but have also accepted this in light of his strong support for separation of church and state. I would prefer a time when politicians could dismiss questions of religion as easily as Arnold Vinick, the fictional Republican candidate from The West Wing, does in this clip. Unfortunately this is not realistic in the current political climate, and Obama has an added need to remind voters of his Christian religion in response to the Muslim smears being spread. Another example of Obama’s thought on religion is seen in this exchange in an interview at Beliefnet:

You wrote in “The Audacity of Hope” about the role that faith and faith-based programs could play in confronting social ills. Isn’t your view on that similar to George W. Bush’s?

No, I don’t think so, because I am much more concerned with maintaining the line between church and state. And I believe that, for the most part, we can facilitate the excellent work that’s done by faith-based institutions when it comes to substance abuse treatment or prison ministries…. I think much of this work can be done in a way that doesn’t conflict with church and state. I think George Bush is less concerned about that.

My general criteria is that if a congregation or a church or synagogue or a mosque or a temple wants to provide social services and use government funds, then they should be able to structure it in a way that all people are able to access those services and that we’re not seeing government dollars used to proselytize.

That, by the way, is a view based not just on my concern about the state or the apparatus of the state being captured by a particular religious faith, but it’s also because I want the church protected from the state. And I don’t think that we promote the incredible richness of our religious life and our religious institutions when the government starts getting too deeply entangled in their business. That’s part of the reason why you don’t have as rich a set of religious institutions and faith life in Europe. Part of that has to do with the fact that, traditionally, it was an extension of the state. And so there is less experimentation, less vitality, less responsiveness to the yearnings of people. It became a rigid institution that no longer served people’s needs. Religious freedom in this country, I think, is precisely what makes religion so vital.

Steve Benen considers this a good answer:

The problem with Bush’s faith-based initiative wasn’t that the government would subsidize social-service work from religious groups. The truth is, that’s been going on for years — Catholic Charities, for example, was contracting with the government for taxpayer-financed projects for years, long before Bush came onto the scene.

Rather, the problem with Bush’s approach is that he identified safeguards in the system, and eliminated them. It led to an initiative in which made it easy for religious groups to proselytize with public funds.

Obama’s approach — which I’d like to hear him emphasize a little more often — would seem to return to the model that was in place before Bush took office: faith-based groups are eligible to compete for government contracts, as they have been for years, but only while “maintaining” the separation of church and state, and while preventing ministries from proselytizing while performing a state-sponsored public service.

And in the bigger picture, Obama’s general approach to religious liberty was very much in line with what I wanted to hear. Indeed, he characterized church-state separation in a way that might appeal more to religious conservatives — arguing that the constitutional principle isn’t hostile towards the faithful, but rather, helps maintain the integrity of religious institutions by leaving them free of government interference. (Mark Kleiman had a good item about this a while back.)


  1. 1
    John says:

    Obama has demonstrated “[s]trong support for separation of church and state”? You have got to be kidding.

    Bad enough he has assured evangelicals he would increase faith-based spending in violation of the Founding Fathers’ clear original intent (roll over in your graves Jefferson, Adams, Madison, and Paine, et. at.), in fact, Barack Obama is the only candidate who openly admits – nay, promises-  he would deny a ‘fundamental’ civil right (secular marriage) to an entire class of ‘persons’ for no other reason than religion.  That is not my opinion but his open and unequivocal promise.

    Ergo, Barack Obama promises to violate the First Amendment (separation of church and state) for the nefarious purpose of denying  ‘due’ process’ and ‘equal protection’ of the law guaranteed under the Fourteenth Amendment.  Pardon me folks, that’s not one Constitutional violation but two!  The justification? Religion.

    “If a civil rights lawyer walked into court and argued that fundamental civil rights should be denied solely for metaphysical reasons [religion] one could fairly wonder if he were a charlatan who found his law degree in a box of Cracker Jack. Legally, Obama’s position on civil marriage is intellectual rubbish.  Audacity indeed!”  (See “Untangling Barack Obama’s audacious mumbo jumbo,” http://ebar.com/common/inc/article_print.php?sec=guest_op&article=73  

    A ‘states rights’  issue? What unmitigated Jim Crow Dixiecrat segregationist mumbo jumbo. Marriage equality is no more a ‘states’ rights’ issue than was inter-racial marriage or a separate water fountain.  And civil unions are disingenuous certificates of inequality that are as demeaning as a ticket to board a Jim Crow railroad car.  

    The day Barack Obama’s parents became married they were presumed to be deemed felons on over half the states and subject to criminal prosecution.  Anyone who has read the seminal case of Loving v. Virginia (a case Senators Obama and Clinton surely know) understands that the invidious rationale the U. S. Supreme Court rejected was religion as the justification for anti-miscegenation laws – that religion and God’s law mandated separation.  Religion you see.  And anyone who knows Loving also knows that it is a marriage case that totally defeats the utterly disingenuous, thoroughly Dixiecrat, ‘states’ rights’ arguments both candidates toss over as an insult to second year law school intelligence.  And this with nary a bubble of protest.  Instead of journalists doing their homework they squander time in gossip about crack pot preachers.

    This is not legal erudition folks but second year law school stuff.  And when journalists  fail to educate themselves on rudimentary legal principals and ask relevant questions then they are no longer watch dogs but propagandists and toothless public relations lap dogs.  

    While Mr. “Humble beginnings” (gimmie a break!) was enjoying the privileges of tony prep-schools and the finest private universities affirmative action could offer, gay men and lesbian women were spilling their warm blood on the cold streets of Alabama and Chicago so that he and his parents could enjoy their civil rights unmolested.  But now that he has his rights he tells them  (to paraphrase one of his famous speeches) that words don’t matter.  Marriage? Civil union? Mere “semantics.”  Front of the bus? Back of the Bus? This railroad car or that? As one infamous court has said,  “One side of the street is as good as the other,”   If that makes gays feel inferior it’s only because they think so.  This from a mixed-race Harvard educated, civil rights lawyer? “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child.”

    That is Obama’s and the Democrats position.  But it’s a problem.  That is the very rationale (almost word for word) supporting the holding if the invidious tyrannous majority in the infamous case of Plessy v. Ferguson which established the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ that was overturned by Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.  It is the essence of what both Brown and Loving rejected.  What part of [L]oving does Barack Obama not get?

    Nothing personal.  Some of his best friends are gay, no, really.  It’s Religion you see.  It’s his “deep faith” you see and the “religious connotations” to marriage.  The covert communication in such disingenuous rationalizations is that the love between he and his wife is better that gays’ love.  After all marriage is between a man and a woman — it’s the “religious connotations”  you see.  

    So let’s see… in the light of promising to increase federal spending to faith-based institutions and also denying a ‘fundamental’ civil right in the name of religion, you conclude this is convincing evidence of “strong support for separation of church and state.”  Amazing. Utterly amazing.  It is terrifying to think The People are so ignorant of fact and law that the wool can be so easily pulled over their eyes.

    Ecrasez l’infame!

  2. 2
    Ron Chusid says:


    That’s quite a distortion of Obama’s views as well as of this post. As is demonstrated above, Obama shows respect for separation of church and state in his policy for faith based organizations. Your comments with regards to his views on marriage are also incorrect.

    Reviewing Obama’s actual statements (as opposed to your distortions) demonstrates strong support for separation of church and state, including the comments quoted here, here, and here.

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