Faith-Based Hiring

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Steve Waldman pooh-poohs the real, on-the-ground significance of the hiring discrimination issue in the new Faith-Based Debate, but in my view he misses the crux of the matter. What the president has always loved about faith-based programming is its promise of transforming lives (and thereby society) by bringing suffering and troubled people to Christ. That’s what happened to him. It’s the traditional Methodist/evangelical idea of changing the world by changing peoples’ hearts.
But of course you can’t transform people in this way if the publicly funded social service providers are just anyone hired according to federal non-discrimination rules. So for the evangelicals who decided to buy into the initiative, getting rid of the hiring rules has always been key. Now, traditional big faith-based providers like Catholic Charities and Lutheran Family Services have never had a problem with this, in large part because evangelization has never been their priority in helping the poor. Mother Theresa, for example, was not interested in converting the dying Hindus her order cared for; the spiritual benefits accrued primarily to the sisters. Skillful lawyering has nothing to do with this.
What happens when you change the hiring rules is that you encourage providers to add proselytizing to the mix–and now the government truly is in the business of underwriting–establishing–religion. Thus, for example, the Salvation Army, which is a church and not just a social service provider, is liberated to spread the Salvationist evangel. Sure, there’s always been an element of religious outreach in taxpayer-supported faith-based social service provision. You see a devoted nun, a cadre of committed church volunteers, a caring rabbi or imam, and maybe you decide to follow their example into their faith. And, sure, some quiet witnessing takes place that some church-state police would rule out of bounds. But this is a far cry from publicly supporting, say, a drug treatment program in which Christ is central to the treatment.
Pace Waldman, but the Obama folks are perfectly in line with longstanding tradition to calmly tell religious organizations that don’t like the rules not to take the money. Then they can evangelize to their hearts’ content.