Once upon a time, in a country far away, what the president cared most about, and what most exercised public debate, was something called a faith-based initiative. The idea was that religiously inspired organizations could do a better job delivering social services than mere secular or, God knows, governmental agencies. Or at least could do just as good a job but were being discriminated against because of unreasonable and even illegal secularist prejudices. So an office was set up in the White House to foster the faith-based, with legislation supposed to go with it. But then came Terror, and the faith-based business of the nation turned out to lie elsewhere, and the legislation died in Congress, and just about everybody forgot about that White House office, except just before the last election, when one of the people who used to work there wrote a book revealing it all to be a politics-driven fraud and that was one one more straw that broke the back of the Republican control of Congress.
Last week, though, presumably because the president is toting up whatever pluses he can tote about his administration for the historians, a conference on the whole faith-based thing was held at the White House, which spawned an op-ed piece in the Washington Post by the former director of the office, Jim Towey. Towey would like the presumptive presidential candidates of their respective parties to talk about the old initiative, and to that end poses a series of questions for them to address. Most are innocuous enough, in a way that suggests that no fair-minded person could possibly oppose what the president has had in mind.
In fact, the initiative started out as a bipartisan, motherhood-and-apple-pie exercise, with a Democrat as the point man and a president who seemed interested in proving his compassionate conservative bona fides. But the Mayberry Machiavellis in the White House saw a political wedge issue in them thar hills, and took their stand on the need for faith-based providers to be able to hire their own kind to do the work being paid for with public dollars. Congressional Democrats would not let this pass, reasoning that it was one thing to exempt religious institutions from non-discriminatory hiring laws when it came to their own spiritual business (like hiring pastors), quite another when it came to the public’s business.
Towey knows that this was the sticking point as well as anyone, but he chooses to elide the issue with this piece of rhetorical legerdemain:
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and a later Supreme Court case permit religious groups to hire on the basis of faith. An Orthodox Jewish organization, after all, could not maintain its identity if it were forced to hire Southern Baptists or atheists. If these same groups want federal funding to support their good works, however, they face a maze of contradictory rules. In the case of some poverty-fighting programs, Congress prohibits religious hiring; yet with others, such hiring is expressly permitted. This has led to a logjam of social welfare legislation in need of reauthorization. How will you break this impasse?
The answer is simple. Require all faith-based institutions to hire on a non-discriminatory basis for any work being undertaken with public funds. Whether or not one believes in such an approach in principle, in practice that’s the only way a Congress controlled by Democrats would give the nod to a revived initiative, which bit of legislation would restore said initiative to motherhood-and-apple-pie status. Oh yeah. And I might do something about that logo, with the white hand reaching down to enclose the brown hand in its grip. OK?