I snapped awake sometime before four o’clock this morning, and my first thought was that maybe I can't vote for Obama. Maybe I'm going to have to vote for a write-in candidate come November. Sen. Barack Obama has said that he wants to expand federal funding for faith-based social initiatives. Under Obama’s plan, which was announced this summer, funding for such projects would be increased to over $500 million per year, delivered in the form of grants to churches, and on-the-ground religious institutions. The money (and accompanying training) is meant to expand the neighborhood organizations’ ability to provide social services to their communities. Groups receiving grants would be precluded from proselytizing in any program funded with federal money, and from hiring with discrimination in regards to religious affiliation.
Putting aside the question of where the funding will come from (his position paper offers ideas but no hard numbers on the subject), from a Christian perspective, this is a horrible idea. Too many churches and para-church community ministries already run impersonal “outreach programs” rather than sincerely and humbly serving their neighbors.
During the 2006 primaries, I was working for a gubernatorial candidate and often campaigned for him at various central-Brooklyn events. One Saturday, I was visiting a series of block parties to make announcements, distribute literature, and talk with local residents. Several of the block parties I visited that day were sponsored by churches, and at one of them the church was giving away bags of staple foods to people in the neighborhood who couldn’t afford it for themselves.
I was sitting at the food distribution table and speaking with the pastor of the church when an anxious-looking man walked up and muttered something inaudible over the music and the shouts of the children.
“What?” the pastor asked. Again, the man muttered. “Do you want the food?” He nodded. “Have a seat, show me your ID.”
While the pastor took the man’s ID, recorded some information, and picked out a bag for him, I watched the man quietly. Looking at his face, his feelings were painfully plain: shame, guilt, failure, and helplessness. I’m tempted to say “emasculation.” This man was broken, and utterly ashamed to be himself.
Not once did the pastor look him in the eyes.
I’m very young, but I really can’t imagine that I will be forgetting the look on that man’s face or the bizarre mix of disgust and indignation and pity and love that swelled up in me when I saw the way the pastor dismissed him. Just feeding people or giving them job training or giving kids classwork over the summer isn’t enough. That man didn’t just need food, he needed to know that he was worth that food. He needed to know that he was loved. He needed to be told that he had inherent dignity as one made in God’s image.
Too few of our churches are active in showing real mercy to the downtrodden around them. Out of those that do, too many do it out of duty rather than love. Churches accepting money and a muzzle not only tells the church community that the government is going to relieve them of the biblical injunction to pour out their blessings for the sake of others, it prevents them from serving living water and the bread of life to those who need it most, those for whom it was given in the first place.
John McCain offers a similar plan, but without preventing the recipient organizations from hiring with discrimination toward religious affiliation, but that still doesn’t address the most flawed part of this proposal: churches that become dependent on the government cease to be a prophetic counter-culture. They stop being churches, and start becoming institutions of the civic religion.
I make no secret of my distaste for the pandering, Darwinian policies and deceptive general election campaign that Sen. John McCain, who throughout my teens and twenties has been an intelligent and usually-principled political figure, is now advocating and running. It’s a betrayal of everything I expected from him: honest, independent thought.
That said, if Sen. Obama is going to move forward with the plan he has said would be the “moral center of his administration,” I can't support this vision of government/church interaction.
Cressbeckler it is, then: