Thursday, July 3, 2008

An Open Letter to Senator Barack Obama

Dear Senator Obama,

I have to this point been an enthusiastic supporter of your candidacy for the presidency of the United States. I must, however, register a grave objection to your stance on faith-based initiatives, as articulated in your July 1 speech in Zanesville, Ohio. Not only is this a misguided policy, but I found your comments unduly dismissive of those who might object to it.

Separation of church and state is, as you yourself note, a bedrock principle of our republic. Any use of taxpayer money to fund any activity of an explicitly religious organization runs directly counter to that principle; it may fall short of “establishment,” but it creates an entanglement between church and state that can lead to no good end.

Cogent arguments against such an entanglement come from all sides. Consider the perspective of avowed secularists, who would not have one penny of the taxes they pay go anywhere near organizations whose beliefs and policy aims are directly counter to their own. Consider the perspective of those devout in their religious faith who would not have a single federal string attached to the funds they use to accomplish their aims.

You reply to these objections by introducing “a few basic principles” to govern the “partnership” between church and state, but these do not withstand close scrutiny.

You state: “if you get a federal grant, you can’t use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can’t discriminate against them – or against the people you hire – on the basis of their religion.” You continue: “federal dollars that go directly to churches, temples, and mosques can only be used on secular programs.”

The notion that a religious organization will be able carefully to compartmentalize their funds – religious money here, secular money way over there – simply defies credulity. Any federal money going to “secular” activities would serve only to free up a larger share of private contributions for “religious” activities, including proselytizing.

Any effort on the part of the federal government to ensure public money is being used only for “secular” purposes would require onerous and costly oversight, vast new bureaucracies to scrutinize the books of religious “partners” in order to police the church-state line. Not only does this raise the specter of direct federal interference in religious activities, but the time, effort, and money that would have to go in to such oversight would better be used bolstering existing, public programs.

Your main response to those who would object to your stance on faith-based initiatives is an obvious straw-man argument. You say: “I know there are some who bristle at the notion that faith has a place in the public square.”

First, using the term “bristle” implies that any objection can only be a kind of reflexive response: knee-jerk secularism. This is meant to imply further that any such objection is inherently unreasonable. Such an argument hardly merits a reply.

Second, you have misrepresented the objection itself. People of various faiths have their place in the public square: insofar as they are citizens, they cannot be expected to remain silent about their beliefs, values, and aims. As you yourself have pointed out, however, if they want to influence public policy they must make their case in public, “universal,” and therefore secular terms.

No, the objection is that, whatever place people of faith may have in the public square, religious organizations should not receive any public funds. They can participate in the public square freely, openly, and on their own dime.

The upshot of all this is a precipitous drop in my enthusiasm for your candidacy.

I am not generally a single-issue voter, but I find that some issues count much more than others, and a small handful are make-or-break. I would not vote for someone who did not accept the mounting consensus on climate change, for example, or who did not accept Darwinian evolution as the core of modern biology. It turns out I have very grave doubts about any candidate who does not pledge to rebuild and maintain Mr. Jefferson’s wall of separation between church and state.

I suppose you still have my vote, for what it’s worth, but where it would have been given enthusiastically it will now be given reluctantly, on the grounds that your opponent is even worse.


Robert Kirkman

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