Yesterday I was a guest on “The Jesse Lee Peterson Radio Show,” a production of BOND (Brotherhood Organization of a New Destiny), to discuss the presidential election and the faith-based initiative, with a special focus on the proposals laid out by Democratic candidate Barack Obama. A streamlined version of the interview is available for download.

After the July 1 speech in Zanesville, Ohio, where Obama called his plan for a new Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships “a critical part” of his executive plans, he continued to campaign on this issue, saying that “faith-based” social service would be “a moral center” of his potential administration.


One of the groups that has faced the dilemma of phasing out faith after taking government money is the Silver Ring Thing, a Christian ministry dedicated to “offering a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as the best way to live a sexually pure life.” In 2006, the ACLU settled a lawsuit with the government over federal grants to the Silver Ring Thing (SRT), on the condition that appropriate safeguards would be implemented to separate out faith elements from programs that received federal dollars.

The success of groups like SRT have made in connecting human sexuality to spiritual and emotional life makes secularists cringe, who judge that the Religious Right “has warped our sexual politics and forced even the most hardened secular humanists to sing from the Christian hymnal.” You can be sure that secularists won’t hesitate to use government funds to undermine the integrity of groups that see faith-based messages like chastity being the biblical standard.

In the course of the interview I refer to a paper produced by the Acton Institute about the service areas that faith-based initiatives tend to focus on, “Faith Makes a Difference: A Study of the Influence of Faith in Human Service Programs.” I also borrow (with attribution) Joe Knippenberg’s witticism, referring to the Obama plan as the “faith-erased” initiative.

I also discuss what I have called “the fungibility phenomenon” and the way in which the White House office sets the tone for the rest of the country. But the coup de grâce of my argument, I think, comes when I liken the faith-based initiative to the sin of simony.

Simony is commonly defined as “a deliberate intention of buying or selling for a temporal price such things as are spiritual of annexed unto spirituals.” Think about this a moment. If what the government’s faith-based initiative boils down to is the appropriation of the vigor and vitality of a uniquely spiritual ministry by means of offering federal money so that this ministry can be controlled and absorbed by the temporal power, that sounds very much like a form of simony to me.

Here’s part of the story of Simon Magus from Acts 8: “When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money and said, ‘Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.’” Peter answered: ‘May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money!’”

Weigh in on what you think ought to be done with the faith-based initiative in our blog poll question on the right side of the page, and share your thoughts in the comment section below.

And, honestly, I can’t say it enough. Visit the Samaritan Guide and find a charity that needs your support and give it to them.


  • Bob Wineburg

    In my book Faith Based Inefficiency:The Follies of Bush’s Initiatives I take the readers through a brief history and the people behind the Bush Faith-Based Initiative. The Initiative was never about addressing society’s complex social problems. It was despite rhetoric and cheer-leading pointing to other reasons, getting more money to pervasively sectarian, especially Christian Churches and organizations. From the very beginning the Initiative was doomed to a constitutional slug-fest –where it remains –left fighting right in a war of words and court cases while the major issues of poverty being unaddressed.
    The religious community has a limited but essential role to play in addressing our social ills. Yet no effort to use the magnificent resources of that voluntary part of our service sector can ever be captured unless we see it as part of local systems of care; Government and Nonprofits who carryout the complex and mandated services in everything from neonatal care to hospice services and things in between like foster care prison reentry, domestic violence school failures and the like. Until communities buy in to a holistic 21st century planning approach that matches needs of the system to resources in the religious community we are doomed too more poverty, ridiculous rhetoric, and doing the wrong thing confidently.