Obama's Faith-Based Initiatives Won't Pass The Lemon Test
Joseph A. Palermo
I always disliked Karl Rove's Republican patronage system that masqueraded as federal "Faith-Based Initiatives." Barack Obama's apparent embrace of this blurring of the line between Church and State, like his stand on the FISA bill and other moves lately, is a disappointment. It illustrates that too few of our political leaders take seriously the "establishment clause" of the Constitution that forbids the enactment of a state religion. Obama taught Constitutional law at the University of Chicago so he knows better.
Long ago the Supreme Court Justice William Brennan devised criteria for discerning whether a law (or executive order) violates the "establishment clause." Justice Brennan called it the "Lemon Test" because it refers to Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971). He included the following criteria: 1). The law must have a secular purpose; 2). It must not advance or inhibit religion; and 3). It must not result in the excessive entanglement of government and religion. Both Bush and Obama's "Faith-Based Initiatives" clearly fail Brennan's "Lemon Test."
I don't think people who find themselves in poverty should have Bibles stuffed down their throats before their own government will give them a loaf of bread and some powdered milk.
In a country where 60 percent of white evangelical Christians, according to a 2006 Pew Forum survey, said they believe that the Bible, not the will of the people, should shape U.S. law, any president who pushes "faith-based" welfare programs is playing with fire. There are armies of hard-core fundamentalists out there dedicated to the Christianizing of American public institutions.
If religious institutions, i.e. churches, are going to receive tax dollars from the federal government to administer "charitable" programs (that are supposed to be part of their mission anyway), then Congress should revoke their "tax exempt" status. Churches that receive government handouts should pay taxes like any other non-governmental organization.
Obama is apparently following the conventional general election strategy of "moving to the center." But he is wrong to do so. He is not moving to the "center." He is really moving to the right. In 2008, there really is no "center," there is only the right and the far right. "Moving to the center" in the post-Reagan era invariably means Democrats capitulating to Republicans.
I suppose Obama is trying to neutralize a small percentage of evangelical voters. He might be able to make inroads with younger people of faith. But he tried this tactic with the National Rifle Association recently and it didn't work. Obama gave his lukewarm support for the Supreme Court's terrible ruling on handguns and the NRA rewarded him by freeing up $40 million to smear him as the "anti-gun" candidate in the fall.
Obama's decision to embrace Bush's "Faith-Based Initiatives" will also fail. James Dobson, Tony Perkins, John Hagee, Pat Robertson, Ralph Reed, Rod Parsley and all the other money-changers in the temples are going to urge their flocks to smite this black man who dares seek the highest office in the land while he and his feminist allies from NARAL-Pro Choice America kill millions of innocent babies.
Meanwhile, Regnery publishers, the same right-wing outfit that produced the book by the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" is preparing to release next month their hit piece on the Democratic presidential candidate: "The Case Against Obama." I don't think "moving to the center" can ever assuage the Right.
It's time for Obama to dedicate a little of his time to the care and feeding of his base.
The Obama campaign might be beholden to the mistaken belief that it can take progressive voters for granted and is probably already looking to the 2010 midterm elections. Evangelical voters will be a force to reckon with in 2010. If Obama can run a 50-state campaign and assist down-ballot candidates, as well as cleave off some of the younger evangelicals and other recovering Republicans, he might be able to sew himself some coattails. The Democrats must increase their majority in the House of Representatives to give them a cushion going into 2010 when they are sure to lose some seats. No one wants a repeat of 1994, the first midterm after Bill Clinton came to power, that gave us 12 miserable years of Republican misrule in Congress.
But the current political situation where a candidate who stands for "Change" begins to sound a lot like Joseph Lieberman is not entirely Obama's fault.
I think the current state of affairs reflects the overall weakness of the left, the labor unions, and progressive organizations generally. We on the left couldn't stop the war in Iraq before it was launched, and we still can't stop it even when the latest polls show that 68 percent of Americans are over it. We couldn't stop Bush from being reelected. We couldn't get a raise in the minimum wage for 15 years. We couldn't get health care for poor children. In the 1990s, we couldn't even stop a Democratic president from devastating working people with "free trade" agreements and welfare "reform" that punished the poor. We've gotten our butts kicked in election after election, and we can see the social and economic wreckage all around us, including an extremely right-wing Supreme Court. Even in 2006 the Democrats didn't win big majorities in either chamber of Congress. The American Left suffers from all sorts of sectarian divisions and identity beefs, and it inflates its own influence in American politics periodically. How else can we explain the last 30 years of right-wing dominance?
More than many other progressive commentators, I have been willing to give Obama a lot of wiggle room because I've seen firsthand the excitement among young people he has unleashed. But he is treading on thin ice. If he continues to move to the right he's going to alienate his most enthusiastic supporters; he will lose precinct walkers, phone bankers, voter registration campaigners, and other activists who were responsible for catapulting him this far. He's going to need those people in November. I hope he backs away from this "centrist" strategy and pays more attention to the grassroots. The exhilaration he generated could dissipate overnight. Even the most eloquent speeches are only effective if people believe what you're saying.