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A Matter of Faith

Barack Obama probably did his cause more harm than he realized earlier this month when he vowed, in a pair of well-orchestrated speeches, to make religion — specifically a “partnership” between government and churches — into a “moral centerpiece” of his administration.

Obama detailed his plan to audiences in Zanesville, Ohio, and St. Louis, just before and after Independence Day. Simply put, he offered a souped-up version of President Bush’s faith-based initiative, which bestows federal tax dollars on churches to deliver localized, hands-on social services.

Bush’s faith-based project was a bad idea that became a scandal, a frontal assault on church-state separation turned political slush fund, corrupting church and state alike. Obama’s idea of change seems to entail enlarging the project, installing some putative safeguards and elevating it to centerpiece status. Going further, he promises to have the program’s top preachers, those who join his planned Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnership, take on a “broader role” by helping to “set our national agenda.”

Something is wrong here. Separation of church and state has been a cornerstone of Democratic thinking more or less continuously since the days of Thomas Jefferson, founder of the party and architect of the proverbial wall of separation. Bush’s faith-based initiative, building on a modest Clinton experiment in triangulation, opened a worrying breach in the wall. The next president should be planning to repair it. Instead, the Democratic contender proposes turning the wall into a tollbooth. Instead of better separating church and state, he wants to make them partners.

Obama claims that America’s problems are too big for government to solve. Change, he said in Zanesville, must come from the bottom up, “not from the top down.” As a model, he recalled the historic role of religious leaders in the struggles against slavery, for women’s rights and civil rights. He dismissed his plan’s critics as people “who bristle at the notion that faith has a place in the public square.”

In fact, hardly anybody argues seriously that religion has no proper role in public life. It’s obvious that those who enter the public arena bring along a set of values. Trouble comes when religious institutions enter the arena and try to exert their influence. That’s the trouble that the Founders sought to prevent when they drew a firm line between church and state: the ancient strife that erupts when churches enter the political world and compete for power.

Obama’s most fundamental error, though, is his notion that America’s problems are too big for government to solve. It is precisely when problems are society wide that society must act together to solve them. That means government, which is, or should be, nothing more than the collective will of society.

It wasn’t preachers’ sermons or parishioners’ marches that ended slavery. Yes, brave activists helped to sway public opinion and press government to act. But when the slaves went free, it was Union soldiers who freed them. The United States Senate gave women the vote, while state legislatures around the country ensured their property, employment and divorce rights. Federal troops cleared the path for black students entering a Little Rock, Ark., high school that the U.S. Supreme Court had ordered integrated. Congress outlawed racial and religious discrimination. And if Americans ever get serious about fighting poverty, hunger and disease, it will take new laws to get the job done.

Only laws can raise and allocate the tax dollars for adequate welfare and unemployment protection. New laws are needed to restructure our health insurance system and ensure that every American receives decent health care. Laws are needed to protect the rights of workers to form unions and bargain fairly with their bosses. Only laws can force a reversal of carbon burning and save the planet from suffocation. We can’t wait until individual citizens decide to act decently. Politics means winning and using power to make things happen.

Barack Obama may have the best intentions, but that won’t bring change. If he means to be president, he’d better understand the power of the job he’s seeking and the workings of the government he plans to run.


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