back to Habermas Studies page religiously-motivated programs and broadly-public goods
We can all be partners in serving a public good.

gary e. davis
July 5, 2008 | updated (bottom) May 23, 2014

There is a great difference between motivation for developing a community program and the content of the program that is developed. Also, there’s a great difference between (1) a faith-based motivation to promote a broadly-public good; and (2) a faith-promoting program. Broadly-public values can be reflected in faith-based motives. Public funding pertains to broadly-public programs, whether or not the genuine motivation is faith-based, but public funding may also be valid when the motivation is faith-based, but the program has broadly-public character. [See May 23, 2014, example at the bottom here.]

Jews, Catholics, Muslims, Episcopalians, etc., easily share with Baptists the value of community development that may also be inspired by evangelical faith. So, evangelicals shouldn’t be worried by Senator Obama’s stance (hereafter: “7/2”) that, it seems to me, publically-funded programs must hire in direct terms of the broadly-public goals and needs of the community program, rather than relative to faith-promoting values of the sponsoring organization.

We all may agree on what community development programs require in order to actualize our broadly-public goals, even though there are various ways to understand the intrinsic virtue of those goals or the intrinsic value of broadly-public goods.

For example, “a goal of closing the achievement gaps between wealthy students and poorer ones” (7/2) can be easily motivated by faith-based values, while being itself about skills and knowledge for productively independent lives. Though achievement in public schools is not as such about the faith that also justifies the value of productive independence (or the value of gaining skills and knowledge for doing good work in one’s community), the value of independence for the sake of good works is clearly also entailed by faith in God’s message of commitment to making a good life and enabling good lives. Broadly-public funds can support broadly-public goods that happen to also be justified by faith.

It should be no surprise that faith easily perceives broadly-public good. But it should also be no surprise that public funds can only serve broadly-public goods in broadly-public terms—terms shared by faith-motivated Americans.

Budgets and employment criteria that clearly distinguish (1) what pertains to a community development program and (2) what pertains to the faith-based sponsor’s own organization is not a great burden for religious organizations to maintain, given (for example, again) the broadly-shared value of education for productive independence, as standardly defined by the education profession.

The distinction between (1) a broadly-public good that can be justified by faith (and be publically funded) and (2) the organization of faith that proffers itself through a broadly-public good (which cannot be publically funded) is confused by persons objecting to Senator Obama’s “all-hands-on-deck approach” (7/2).

On the one hand, the integrity of our religious institutions is not threatened by recognizing that broadly-public goods have their own integrity, which may be justified by all senses of faith. On the other hand, Richard Cizik, of the National Association of Evangelicals, is quite correct that “protecting the integrity of our religious a fundamental right.” Yet, the value of education for productive independence, for example, is implied by that integrity, even though advancing the integrity of faith as such (promoting the faith) is a separate calling, belonging to all senses of faith, but each in their own way.

Richard Land, of the Southern Baptist Convention, appears to confuse the difference between a program sponsored by a faith-based organization (which can receive public funds) and a faith-promoting program, when he says: “If you can’t hire people within your faith community, then you’ve lost the...reason why faith-based programs exist in the first place” (7/2). The reality here is that broadly-public funding may share with a faith-based organization the calling to support community programs that are warranted in their own way; but funding for faith-promoting programs must come from non-federal sources.

Peter Steinfels (hereafter: “7/5”), writing today about Obama and this issue, seems to want to occlude the difference between (1) a faith-based organization (that may promote broadly-public programs) and (2) a faith-promoting program, when he quotes law professor Jeffrey Rosen: “It’s not hard to understand why faith-based organizations need to discriminate on the basis of religion to maintain their essentially religious character....A Jewish organization forced to hire Baptists soon ceases to be Jewish at all.” But a Jewish organization can easily support broadly-public goods through community development programs without compromising its religious identity. It just can’t expect public funding of faith-promoting programs.

Mr. Steinfels occludes the difference between (1) hiring for faith-promoting programs by faith-based organizations; and (2) hiring for broadly-public programs by faith-based organizations, when he quotes Rosen further, that “without the ability to discriminate on the basis of religion in hiring and firing staff, religious organizations lose the right to define their organizational mission enjoyed by secular organizations that receive public funds.” Mr. Rosen is quite right. But secular organizations are proffering faith-neutral missions (e.g., organizations that are humanistically “spiritual” in clearly non-faith-based terms of the secular mission of the organization. No one has suggested that hiring for faith-promoting programs should be denied faith-based goals. Expecting public funding for that is invalid.

Faith-based organizations can hire for a publically-funded community program from within their faith-based communities, but the criteria for hiring must be directly relative to the specific needs (skills and knowledge) of the broadly-public program, as represented to the public funding source that is funding the costs of hiring (and that is funding later costs of the hired position) in that broadly-public program whose virtue is also entailed by faith.

Persons outside of the “faith community” must have demonstrably equal opportunity to be hired for broadly-public programs supported by broadly-public funds, relative to the needs of the articulated program. The faith-based organization receiving public funds must be able to clearly show that hiring was directly justifiable in terms of the community development program. This is not an undue burden for religiously-motivated development of programs that have broadly-public value in their own terms (e.g., career-educational goals oriented to the general employment market in terms of the market's requirements).

Religiously-motivated programs (programs motivated by faith-based organizations) cannot expect public funding of religiously-promotional activities designed to advance the faith apart from broadly-public program objectives serving the broadly-public interest.

Because the faith-based value of community development may be easily justified in broadly-public terms, funding faith-motivated programs by broadly-public resources may be constitutional. That also may implicitly (collaterally) advance sacred values, but without explicitly advancing a perspective on faith via publically-funded time.

So, it’s a mistake to say that Senator Obama is embracing the same general approach as Bush. Rev. Barry W. Lynn, of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, is unduly disappointed (7/2) when he says: “I am disappointed that any presidential candidate would want to continue a failed policy of the Bush administration.”

But Senator Obama is quite right to want to see in the failed Bush program a broadly-public interest in supporting religiously-motivated programs which are not promoting religion. “If elected, Mr. Obama said, he would call for a pre-inauguration review of all executive orders pertaining to the religion-based program” (7/2). Faith-based and neighborhood partnerships can be partnerships about broadly-public goods amenable to all senses of faith.

Mr. Steinfels asks: “If Planned Parenthood could refuse to hire people disagreeing with its views about abortion, why should churches, mosques and synagogues not have the same right?” (7/5). Of course, churches, etc., have the same right. But they can’t use public funds to advance faith-based views on abortion. The constitutional right to “Choice” is based on (1) the Constitutional right to privacy and (2) consensual medical opinion on personhood (based on biological knowledge of fetal viability). By the way, people easily forget that one can be pro-Choice constitutionally and against abortion as a personal choice. Recall the Clinton stance: safe but rare. The broadly-public interest in freedom of deliberative choice is what is funded via Planned Parenthood, not a view on abortion.

Mr. Steinfels goes on to provide interesting reminders about the history of public attitudes toward religious freedom, but that’s irrelevant to the issue. Constitutionality protects that diversity of understandings about religious freedom that Mr. Steinfels sketches. But the issue, relative to Obama, is: What broadly-public funding of faith-motivated programs is constitutional? We are required to protect that diversity and ensure state neutrality about stances on religious freedom in programs serving a broadly-public interest. That can't be advanced by public funding of selected faith-promotional programs.

August 2011: The White House: “Faith Filled & Healthy Communities: The Memphis Congregational Network” [or PDF, post-Obama years] | May 23, 2014: PBS News Hour story on this |

Also: This discussion is associated with the “advancing community” area of