Thursday, July 3, 2008

Obama Supports Faith-Based Initiatives

It seems that a lot of non-theists support Barack Obama for his liberal political views, rather than anything his stance on religion. Like any other presidential candidate (or really, any candidate running for political office), he's had to mention the importance of his faith and how often he goes to church. But at least he doesn't want to turn our secular government into a religious one, right?

Check out this yahoo news article that Seth sent out in the mailing list:
Taking a page from President Bush, Democrat Barack Obama said Tuesday he wants to expand White House efforts to steer social service dollars to religious groups, risking protests in his own party with his latest aggressive reach for voters who usually vote Republican.
Isaah points out that this isn't just going to be an extension of Bush policies. As the article goes on to say (towards the end):
Obama also chose a different emphasis for why religious charities are an important answer to solving poverty and other social problems: because they better know the people who are hurting, instead of Bush's argument that religion itself is a transforming power the government must not be afraid to harness.

And while Bush supports allowing all religious groups to make any employment decisions based on faith, Obama proposes allowing religious institutions to hire and fire based on religion only in the non-taxpayer-funded portions of their activities — consistent with current federal, state and local laws. "That makes perfect sense," he said.
Seth has argued (and I'm paraphrasing so correct me if I'm wrong) that the federal government should not fund charities in general. This would be akin to a forced donation. Personally, I think we pay taxes to the government in exchange for services, and it's perfectly fine for the government to spend that money on things that benefit the country as a whole, including charities. Perhaps government money has a corrupting influence on private charities, but it's equally likely that fewer charities would exist if they didn't get any government funding. And helping people through funding private charities is probably more efficient than supporting the same people through welfare or medicaid.

The problem arises because most private charities are religious. There are huge first amendment problems when religious charities take government money and use it to proselytize, increase their numbers, or give perks to their congregation. Even though Obama says, for instance, that religious institutions can only hire and fire based on religion in the "non-taxpayer-funded portions of their activities," who is going to make sure? Are we going to have to fund a bureaucracy to watch the religious charities? I doubt that the small, grassroots organizations Obama is thinking of funding will be able to separate their personnel into those who work on taxpayer-funded activities and those who don't.

Charities can help solve our poverty issues and other social problems, religious or not. If a religious charity wants to spend their money and donations for religious purposes, let them. Just don't give them government money. If a religious charity wants some taxpayer money, it should be their responsibility to create a secular arm of their organization to administer the donations. What's the point in focusing on religious charities in particular? Obama's reasoning, that:
religious charities are an important answer to solving poverty and other social problems: because they better know the people who are hurting
sounds just like his blanket statement that poor people cling to their guns and religion.


C said...

There are three types of reasons that Obama's proposal is a bad one: constitutional, practical, and moral.

Constitutional: the Constitution has a set of enumerated powers regarding what the Federal Government (particularly Congress) may do. They are located in Article I, Section 8. As our government is one of limited powers, it should not arrogate itself powers that are not in the Constitution. Should extra powers be needed, we have an amendment process. When Congress wanted to impose an income tax or ban alcohol, it created these extra powers in the proper way--by constitutional amendment. Alas, today, the Congress routinely takes powers to which it is not authorized in the Constitution. Barack Obama has given no indication that he will change this practice.

(There's also the First Amendment prohibition on making "law respecting an establishment of religion" but I figure this is well known enough among our group.)

Practical - For most goods, the market sector is more efficient than the government sector. The market comes with the incentives of meeting customers' needs (for the best goods at the lowest prices), creating a diverse number of solutions, and responding to signals. Governments encourage monopolies, reward those who are best at lobbying government, and allow 51% of the population to impose its will on 100% of citizens.

One reason churches are so successful in the U.S. is that they are run by and for religious communities--not the government. In Europe, there are many state churches. It's no wonder that Europe is more secular. State-run churches are complacent because they have secure funding from the government rather than tending to the needs of their congregation. Obama's proposal would make our charities weaker and less efficient.

Moral - I can't put it any better than this:

"to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical." - Thomas Jefferson

Dee W said...

Hello C,

I also think that Obama's proposal is a bad one. However, I want to point out some things in your comment I disagree with.

1. Among the enumerated powers in Article 1, Section 8 is the Taxing and Spending clause. The spending clause authorizes the federal government to "provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States." I sort of hinted at this in the blog post, but to be more clear--a healthy, well-fed, educated, populace with homes directly contributes to the general welfare of the U.S. Thus government funding for charities should be constitutional.

2. Churches aren't a part of the market sector. They are generally non-profit organizations, and so are charities (religious or not).

3. When you say churches are successful in the U.S., I'm not sure what you're saying they are successful *at*. A company's success is measured by its profits. U.S. churches might have a more fundamentalist congregations, higher attendance, or higher conversion rates than European churches. But the language of economics seems to break down when it's applied to churches. Profitable companies are generally good because they create economic value. What does a more fundamentalist church create, and is that a societal good?

4. Even if churches are more successful without government money, that doesn't necessarily mean that the charities they run are more efficient. Although I tend to agree that government money can have a corrupting influence, I don't agree that it necessarily poisons everything it touches. Non-profits need money to operate, even if all they do is collect and distribute donations. Many charities that receive donations would not be operational without government funding.

C said...

Hi Dee,

1. I suspect we're simply going to disagree about the nature and extent of the powers granted by the Constitution to the federal government. I think that the historical record shows that the types of activities of which you speak--a government which imprudently usurps responsibilities which rightfully belong to the citizens--were traditionally performed by the states (along with their police powers.) While your reading of the Constitution is plausible and indeed accepted by the vast majority of scholars and the entire federal judiciary, it is still much more practical to allow the states to act as "laboratories of democracy." Human beings are error-prone and human institutions are likely to fail. On a range of extremely complex issues--healthcare, drug policy, education, et. al.--it's just good common sense to not put all our eggs in one basket. It's also a tradition in American governance to favor local solutions and it has, on balance, served us well.

2. If you make a simple distinction between "Public" and "Private" sector, churches are clearly part of the latter. Now many people make place for a third sector, the "non-profit sector" or NGOs. But in this case I would argue that it's helpful to keep it simple: there are organizations that exist by government fiat and those that don't. They are optimal for different purposes.

3. Churches are successful by the measure of religious belief and participation in the U.S. See, e.g., here. What does religious participation create? Social Capital.

4. There are two complementary problems: having enough money and using it wisely. Each of us can think of a specific instance when a humongous expenditure of money was a complete and total waste. (E.g., $10 billion per week for Iraq War, e.g., doubling education spending over 30 years for no achievement gains, etc., etc.)

For reasons I mentioned in my earlier comment, charities work better when their incentive are aligned with their mission. If they are constantly lobbying politicians for taxpayer dollars, attention, energy, and expertise are taken away from their mission to help those in need. The loss of focus on their core mission--which is often religiously-inspired, for what it's worth--can turn a worthwhile cause that was once pursued with skill and zeal into just another scam to steal public money.


Nicole said...

The fact that we are actually arguing over the merits of this in the first place points out one of the problems with a centralized, government-based system of distributing wealth, even small amount of it. There will be some minority who are opposed to their money being used in such a way. In this cases specifically, it is atheists who are opposed to faith-based funding. Like c suggests, it allows a majority to impose a will upon the whole.

I also agree with Chaim's email, unfortunately, that this sweeping aside of a disliked minority is seriously ugly. It seems to me that the farther-out religious right is so dissatisfied with both McCain AND Obama, that their vote is something that both candidates are willing to fight hard to win over. If only non-believers were so popular!