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July 5, 2008

Just Six Little Words

Obama's efforts to woo evangelical voters may not be as clear cut as they seem.

Sen. Barack Obama told reporters Saturday that he is optimistic about winning the evangelical vote in November.

"If we show up, if we let folks know that we're interested in them and we share a lot of common values, then we're not going to win 100 percent of the evangelical vote. We might not even win 50 percent of the evangelical vote. But we will at least take some of the sharp edges off this divide that's existed in our politics. And that hopefully will allow people to listen to each other, and that will help me govern over the long term."

Obama promised Saturday that he will make "faith-based" social service "a moral center of my administration," according to Jonathan Weisman of the Washington Post.


Earlier this week, Obama announced that he would increase funds for the office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Although reporters called it an effort to reach out to evangelicals, Peter Steinfels at The New York Times outlines how Obama's speech included six little words that sparked the dispute.

"First," Obama said, "if you get a federal grant, you can't use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help, and you can't discriminate against them - or against the people you hire - on the basis of their religion."

That little phrase between the dashes - "or against the people you hire" - ignited a political explosion, Seinfeld wrote.

There has been an ongoing debate over whether faith-based organizations can discriminate in hiring based on applicants' religious beliefs, a nonnegotiable for many evangelical social-service providers.

When asked whether he would keep the office open, Obama told Christianity Today in January that he wants to see how the moneys have been allocated.

"One of the things that I think churches have to be mindful of is that if the federal government starts paying the piper, then they get to call the tune," Obama told CT. "It can, over the long term, be an encroachment on religious freedom."

Sen. John McCain's spokesperson, Brett O'Donnell, told CT that the Arizona candidate wants faith-based groups to "have at least the same standing as they have now."

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First of all, how many Christian organizations refuse to help non-Christians? I've heard of Christian scholarship funds who only give scholarships to Christian students, but I don't think these are the types of organizations that Senator Obama is referring to. Second, the reason that faith-based charities are "faith-based" is because they have certain values that they want their organizations to communicate. Hiring people who do not hold the same views as the organization will likely cause tension within the organization, thereby decreasing the efficiency and effectiveness of that organization's mission. While I can understand why Sen. Obama wouldn't want organizations receiving federal funds to proselytize, I honestly think they should be able to refuse to hire people who disagree with the organizations' values.

There are some mnistries that link preacing and ministry. My local homeless shelter would have people sit for a brief sermon and hymn sing before people were allowed to eat dinner and stay the night. That's ok if your completely private, but if you're receiving federal funds then people should not be forced to participate in a religious service before receiving services paid for by the government. In most cases, Matt's right, this isn't an issue. For a lot of service organizations, this just means some careful accounting. Christian colleges, for example, can get a grant to build housing on campus, but if they do they can't turn part of it into a prayer chapel. They can still have the chapel, but it can't be in the building paid for by the government. The federal funds have to go to buildings of a secular purpose. This is why the hiring reuirement may not be bad. If a church applies for a grant to hire a social worker, then they can't expect the government to allow them to impose a religious oath on the person being hired. They could have them support "values" but not doctrine. Or think of this, you get a grant to build a new homeless shelter. Is it ok to only hire contractors who are members of your church? No. It's a secular job. The grant is for a secular purpose. You shouldn't be able to do that. I think that's all Obama is saying