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Obama's Faith-Based Plan: An Education Agenda Disguised as Religion

By July 11, 2008

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Barack Obama's recently unveiled faith-based initiatives plan is one adroitly clever piece of political maneuvering. (Read a summary at Barack Obama's Faith-Based Community Service Plan.)

As a liberal, a Christian, and an unapologetic believer in the power of education, I'm enthused, and encouraged, by the agenda Obama puts forth in Partnering with Communities of Faith.

Obama's intelligent redo of George Bush's much-maligned faith-based initiatives is clever for several reasons:

  • Under the guise of the faith-based label, which appeals to social conservative voters, a significant part of the Obama initiative is devoted to a massive, new education program to strengthen reading and math skills for one-million kids from low-income families.

    And who can blame future President Obama for wanting to ensure that this keystone for educational progress, and ultimately, U.S. economic growth, is met, somehow, some way? Given the dire straits of the post-Bush federal budget, and the horrific and heartless chopping of public education (see HERE and HERE for examples) by the Bush administration... this may be the quickest method for Obama to jump-start, or reinstate, vital support for readng and math literacy skills among students who suffered most from Bush budget cuts.

  • While the initiative is billed as faith-based, it's actually aimed equally at both faith-based and secular, community-based organizations, such as those former community organizer Obama fervently worked with and for two decades ago. Additionally, many services targeted by an Obama administration, such as educational tutoring, are not commonly offered by most churches, synagogues and the like.

    Such non-faith based groups have notoriously suffered under the Bush administration, both by radical budget cuts of social services by the Bush administration, and by the awarding of Bush faith-based grants on a politically partisan basis.

  • Billing his initiative as faith-based carries a strong connotation for religious right voters as being exclusively Christian. And yet, Obama's faith-based plan appropriately insists that all faith groups be considered as program providers; that absolutely no proselytizing and sectarian instruction take place; and that only secular progams may be provided under this initiative.

To be sure, there are many pressing questions to be answered about Barack Obama's Partnering with Communities of Faith. The superb blog, Pam's House Blend, does a splendid job at Eight Questions on Obama and "Faith Based Initiatives" of posing important issues that must be addressed.

One question, in particular, I've long wondered: Since, as Pam's House Blend observes, according to our Constitution, it is for Congress to appropriate money for programs, not the President.... then how can such expansive and expensive programs be authorized only by the Executive branch?

I heartily agree, though, with Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne's comment that "In suggesting that the faith-based policy be mended but not ended, Obama starts with the right reforms."

Obama's four page Partnering with Communities of Faith is only a start.

But, in my view, it's an outstanding start... one that rights the wrongs of the Bush faith-based initiatives, and exists to efficiently and effectively serve a myriad of desperate needs in neighborhoods and communiites.

This program encourages me about the progressive prospects of an Obama administration, despite my recent misgivings about the Democratic presidential candidate's post-primary season changes on warrantless wiretapping legislation and the Iraq War.

(Photo taken on May 5, 2007 at the Pierre A. Capdau-UNO Charter School in New Orleans: Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Related Reading
Pros & Cons of the No Child Left Behind Act

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