Before Barack Obama was declared the next United States President in November, many Americans had been wondering about the future of a program that my classmates and I briefly discussed this Thursday: President Bush’s Faith-Based Initiative. To the relief of some and the disdain of others, it appears from a speech delivered in early July that Obama will keep the Faith-Based Initiative intact after a few modifications. Namely, federal money will be used only on secular programs and Obama will eliminate proselytizing and religious discrimination against hired officials. Columnist James Carroll of the Boston Globe analyzed the motives and potential ramifications of Obama’s position in his article, “Secular Rule Benefits the Faithful, too.”
Carroll advocates Obama’s plans for the initiative on the basis that the added secularization Obama brings to the program promotes a more symbiotic relationship between religious groups and their target audiences. But the most interesting point Carroll makes lies in the political implications that this path of action has for Obama and America as a whole. Carroll hopes that Obama’s unique and highly tolerant perspective will bring more depth to the religious issues that impact our nation today by giving minority groups, such as “those religious believers for whom the secularity of liberal democracy is a value,” a voice.
I think Carroll’s positive outlook on this new policy is merited. The main reason I support Carroll’s analysis can be reasoned using James Morone’s concept of ‘us and them’ in his article “Hellfire Nation” (also covered in class this week). The diversity of the United States reinforces the need for a social identity – an ‘us’ – in Americans, but “defining us also designates them… generous visions of inclusion face off against hard prejudices” (Morone 8). These ‘hard prejudices’ are what have kept American beliefs about the role of religion in politics so polarized; or at least those beliefs that are normally vocalized. By taking a middle ground, Obama lends courage to more moderate individuals: nonreligious people who are not opposed to government funding working through organizations (simply because they have a religious branding), and those mentioned previously who are religious but happen to promote secularization. With the ideas of those previously afraid of promoting a “lose-lose” position added to the political arena, advocates with more extreme views on the issue will be forced to abandon the shallow ad-hominem attacks that plague most of today’s debates in favor of more substantial arguments.
There is still more waiting to do before we can watch how this plays out. Will a compromise truly be able to satisfy individuals who have worked tirelessly for their vision of America? Probably not, but maybe it will dilute their voices in the matter. A nation equated to having the ‘soul of a church,’ but founded on the concepts of secularization and personal freedom will face perpetual values conflicts - all most of us hope for is an environment to debate these conflicts in a mature and progressive way.