Saturday, January 31, 2009

"Programs over principles" might just be the change we need

Jonathan Turley, Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University and contributor to USA Today, has a bone to pick with our new president. In his op-ed "Faith-based, Part II," Turley voices his displeasure with two of Obama's choices: One, the decision to have Rick Warren preach at his inauguration; two, Obama's choice to expand the faith-based government initiatives that were begun by the Bush administration, renaming Bush's "Office of Faith-Based and Community Inititaives" as the "White House Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships," and expanding it from one office to twelve. Through these examples, he intends to prove that Obama, while advocating for change, has more in common with his predecessor than his supporters may have thought.

Using Rick Warren to link Obama to Bush may seem like an odd method, and indeed, the connection is tenuous at best. Turley claims that Warren is a man "who actively seeks to shape society" along the lines of his controversial religious views; this, plus Obama's connection with Reverend Wright, raises Turley's concerns that our president, like Bush, "seems to gravitate toward ministers who see little dividing the pulpit from politics." He also suggests that Warren's endorsement of Obama "may lay a foundation for a mutually beneficial alliance" between his administration and religious conservatives, and that although Obama wishes to include all viewpoints, viewpoints like Warren's are not "worthy of incorporation." On this point, I must disagree. Obama's position of inclusion would be much harder to swallow if he only included people or groups that he (or Turley) personally agree with. And although I disagree with Warren's view of homosexuality, it's not as though by having him pray that Obama is going to base his policies on Warren's opinion. A person can be open to others' opinions without endorsing them themself.

Next, in his main argument, Turley complains that Obama's choice to expand faith-based initiatives instead of abolishing them further diminishes the idea of separation of church and state. He defines Obama's mentality this way:

It is a simple matter of priorities: Obama just seems to be more interested in programs than principles. He views change in more concrete terms: helping families, creating jobs and expanding the social safety net. Worthy objectives to be sure, but what about restoring the core principles that define our government?

"Restoring the core principles that define our government" sounds very lofty and important, but Turley's statement begs the question: what's so bad about the "programs" Obama endorses? Principles are all well and good, but they don't feed a family. Now, I'm not saying that as US citizens living in this era of "change" we should abandon the principles that our founding fathers laid out. However, I AM saying that Obama's attempt to make a concrete, tangible improvement in people's lives is something that should not be brushed away by questions of intangible principle. We can talk about separation of church and state all day long, but while we do, people are suffering. Historically, ministries and charities, usually religiously affiliated, have been the driving force behind attempts to alleviate that suffering. And if Obama realistically wants to bring about the change he has promised, then why not enlist their support?

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