Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Fly in the Ointment: Faith-Based Programs and Discriminiation against Gays

Evangelical leader Tony Campolo has an interesting reflection today at Alternet about Barack Obama’s choice to continue the Bush faith-based social service programs (here). Campolo’s take? These programs may seriously impair the “religious distinctiveness” of the faith groups sponsoring them.

Campolo notes criticisms of the faith-based programs that I have outlined in previous postings (here and here). As he points out, the faith-based social service programs were almost immediately politicized by the Bush administration. The money provided to faith groups operating these programs was used as a bargaining chip to pull faith-based groups into the Republican fold.

Moreover, this initiative was seriously underfunded, resulting in a loss of social services crucially important to many Americans in need who had previously been assisted by the federal government. And many of the programs were abysmally managed, with little accountability or supervision, with a dearth of solid data to verify that they were meeting their goals, and with holes in accounting procedures, so that the money given to many groups was not clearly accounted for.

Campolo notes,

It wasn't long before there was talk about how this office was being subverted by the likes of Karl Rove to serve political purposes. Certain leaders of African-American denominations complained that government dollars for faith-based ministries were being used to lure pastors from black churches into loyalty to the Republican Party. The resignation of John DiJulio as the Director of the White House office lent substance to the rumor that faith-based programs were being politicized. Then J. David Kuo, the deputy director of the President's program, not only resigned, but wrote an exposé of how the faith-based programs supported by the White House were underfunded and were more propaganda than substance. Yet religionists, and especially Evangelicals, failed to raise a ruckus over what was happening, probably because they still were hoping that crumbs, in the way of grants, might fall their way from the White House table.

His primary concern has to do, however, with the effect of these programs—with the effect of the choice of faith groups to take federal funds—on the religious distinctiveness of churches. He notes that the money comes with strings attached.

And as he also observes, particularly troubling to many evangelicals has been the hint that Mr. Obama might revise the Bush presidency’s decision to permit faith-based discrimination in these faith-based programs. The big fly in the ointment? The expectation that religious groups receiving federal funds to provide social services might not be permitted to discriminate against gays and lesbians:

Evangelical groups immediately saw the fly in the ointment. Religious organizations would have to be open to hiring persons who were not necessarily in accord with their beliefs and sexual behavioral expectations. They decried the requisite that they would have to provide equal opportunities for the employment of gays and lesbians if they were to receive federal grants.

Apparently church leaders' horror at the thought that they might have to forfeit gay-bashing in order to receive federal money led to big behind-the-scenes powwows between Obama’s team and his evangelical constituents in the period before the election, confabs about which I knew nothing until I read Campolo’s article. Campolo says that the upshot of these powwows (in which Rev. Rick Warren seems to have been involved) was that word was “sent down” that “the policies that were in place on these matters during the Bush Administration would be continued.”

That is, faith-based groups could continue business as usual, discriminating against gay and lesbian citizens, who are among those providing the tax dollars that fund these programs, while receiving funding for social services under the Obama administration. Campolo says that he is given to believe this “word” came down directly from Mr. Obama himself.

Now, it seems, a reversal is taking place, and there are hints from the new administration that discrimination will be frowned on in groups receiving federal funding for faith-based social service programs. To Campolo, this presents a challenge: if churches have to sacrifice their beliefs and practices in order to receive federal funds, then perhaps the price for such federal support is too high.

I’m not surprised by Campolo’s analysis. Though he is on the moderate end of the evangelical spectrum when it comes to gay issues, he is still of the hate-the-sin-love-the-sinner mindset. A mindset that we sinners who find our sin hated by followers of Christ notice all too often translating itself into hate, period.

What strikes me as curious about Campolo’s argument (and it captures the outlook of many Christians of the center-right today) is that it pays no attention at all to the way in which discrimination against a group of demeaned human beings is in itself an abdication of all that faith groups claim to hold most dear. The problem Mr. Campolo should be facing, and calling on his co-religionists to face, is not how to take federal funds while continuing to engage in faith-based discrimination.

It is to repudiate discrimination altogether. Most faith-based groups have apologized for and repented of their discrimination against people of color. Many faith-based groups are en route to doing the same re: women, though most still have a long way to go in that regard.

Why not continue the process with the group now in the sights of maleficent believers who think they must always have an enemy, in order to be the church militant? Why not grant that if the churches were wrong in the past about their conviction that scripture and tradition require discrimination on grounds of pigmentation or gender, the churches might be equally wrong today about their certainty that discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation is biblically mandated and in line with the best of Christian tradition?

Why not give up discrimination altogether? And recognize that it damages the churches far more than taking federal funds while expecting to discriminate does?