What we mean when we say "faith-based?"

So I’ll start this post by simply saying that according to the “Belief-o-matic” – which joyfully takes all the fuss out of actually deciding which of the serious faith traditions of this planet appeal to your addled, text-msg polled, Myspace-apped brain, by asking you a series of the most leading questions possible – places me either as exactly what I am (a liberal/progressive mainstream Protestant) or an Orthodox Quaker. Which is just funny if you’ve ever seen my sense of drama and worship in the context of a meeting of Friends. It’s kinda like a brass band walking through a library.

Anyway, I’ve been being over-dramatic and tossing occasional things at the TV this week as I’ve watched a certain progressive candidate get stomped all over by progressives for coming out in support of “faith-based initiatives.” It seems extraordinary that a simple term like this has been allowed to run over so many clear lines in the sand as I see it. People get huffy and talk about the separation of church and state a lot these days, and – let’s face it – most of the time I come down on being very much in favor of that great plastic SOLO picnic plate that is our system of government. Yet I can’t help but think that when it comes to the charity and true giving of not-for-profit organizations based in faith we need to strap on our wading boots and actually get into the finer distinctions.

There is a distinction between an organization that is based in faith and primarily exists in order to perpetuate the belief of that faith, and one based in faith that uses that faith to drive secular actions for the good of others, regardless of faith. There are “faith-based” initiatives that have received support in order to pursue ministries that hope to lobby politicians to define marriage in a particular way.

Yet there are initiatives that have fed the homeless, provided career training for the unemployed, and visited the sick and imprisoned. The distinction is that the faith that drives these later institutions in no way determines the access that the people have to their services, and proselytizing is not how they do business … the whole intent of separation clauses in the first place. (… the most explicit separations I’m aware of in the constitution – Article 6 – are those that prohibit the imposition of a test of faith for SERVICE to the people, i.e. holding public office.) In order to provide the black and white separation I’m hearing some of my progressive friends advocate, isn’t the new test of faith for service to the people… “REQUIRED FAITH = NONE/WINDOW DRESSING”? There’s of course a finer distinction to be made about the best use of the people’s money, but the candidate in question said it right when he said that faith communities have been the most successful at reaching certain sections of the population, so, in fact even from a purely secular view, it may be that churches are the most efficient way to reach certain core groups. Sigh. There’s a lot of gray out there, people… let’s relish the complexity of public life and prove ourselves worthy of it.

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