Posts tagged with: faith-based initiatives

Barack Obama recently announced that he wishes to expand President Bush’s program of public funding for religious charities. In his latest piece for National Review Online Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, warns us of some of the dangers of federal funding for faith-based charities.

Rev. Sirico writes:

The lesson of this long history is that if you want to do religiously motivated work in the United States, it is best to do it on your own dime. This is what American culture expects, a belief rooted very deeply in our history and current practice. I believe that this practice is best for the health of religion and the health of the state. We all benefit by keeping religion separate from the public sector so that it can better grow, flourish, and transform society.

The fact that Obama intends to expand government funding (and control) to religious charities should not be surprising, however, because it falls in line with his philosophy on the role of government. In his article, Rev. Sirico elaborates on this:

In some ways, we shouldn’t be surprised that Obama is warm to this idea. It is part of his intellectual apparatus and part of the party he will represent in the election. He believes in government and all its pomps, and never misses a chance to say that something good should be subsidized by the public sector. This accords with his philosophy.

The Detroit News ran my commentary from the end of last year on the role of religion and prisoner reform today, “Don’t prevent religion from helping to reform prisoners.” The version that ran today omits the references to Jeremy Bentham, which you can get from the original and this related blog post.

In related news, Prison Fellowship president Mark Earley reports today that the “Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals has set February 13, 2007, for oral arguments in the appeal of the ruling against Prison Fellowship and the InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI).” The appeal will be argued in St. Louis, MO and former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor will be part of the three judge panel.

Get more information about the case at the IFI Ruling web page.

In this week’s Acton commentary, I reflect on the past year’s developments for InnerChange Freedom Initiative, a ministry of Prison Fellowship. In June a federal judge in Iowa ruled against IFI’s work at Iowa’s Newton facility. In his ruling (PDF here), the judge wrote that the responsibility for combating recidivism is “traditionally and exclusively reserved to the state.” This means that since reducing recidivism is a “state function,” anyone working to combat recidivism is by definition a “state actor.”

Panopticon blueprint by Jeremy Bentham, 1791

I contrast the judge’s perspective with that of IFI and other advocates of the importance of civil society, using the theories of utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham to highlight their differences. Bentham too thought that reform was the task of the government. He argued for the construction of prisons along the model of his “panopticon,” literally meaning “all seeing,” where the extreme use of constant surveillance and individual sequestration would break down the anti-social behaviors of convicted criminals. It was a rather unintuitive program, to say the least, but an influential one nonetheless.

Bentham thought so little of religious practice in fact, that he thought communal worship would destroy his isolationist agenda. In other types of prison facilities prisoner solitude would necessarily be disturbed when prisoners were given “the benefits of attendance on Divine service.”

Under Bentham’s plan, however, prisoners “might receive these benefits, in every circumstance, without stirring from their cells. No thronging nor jostling in the way between the scene of work and the scene destined to devotion; no quarellings, nor confederatings, nor plottings to escape; nor yet any whips or fetters to prevent it.” The communal aspects of worship could thus be entirely dispensed with while placating the necessities of religious adherence.

All of these events effecting IFI’s work occurred in a year that saw a sharp increase in violent crime. For more on the broader picture of the year’s legal developments for faith-based work, see this year’s “The State of the Law 2006: Legal Developments Affecting Government Partnerships with Faith-Based Organizations” from the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy. The report includes a section devoted to IFI’s case.

And as a recent article in the NYT magazine observes, there is a growing political coalition on the topic of prison reform. Chris Suellentrop writes with regard to a specific piece of legislation that almost passed in the last congressional session, but may be brought up again in the future, “If the Second Chance Act fails to pass, it will not be because the two parties cannot agree on the importance of rehabilitation programs in prisons. But it may be because they disagree on the role religious organizations should play in rehabilitation.” (HT: Mirror of Justice)

Read the entire commentary here.

One thing that President Bush’s formation of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives did was lead the way for the formation of similar offices at various other levels of government.

For example, in Michigan, Gov. Granholm formed the Governor’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives by means of an executive order in March, 2005. And the city government in Lansing also has such an office, formed in August of this year, and has recently announced the agenda for the effort (HT: Religion Clause).

If David Kuo wants to portray the president’s faith-based initiative as nothing more than a political ploy with no substance, he’s going to have to account for all the work that is potentially being done at all these other levels of government. (I say potentially because there are of course questions about how these efforts have been implemented and what sort of work they are actually doing.)

Perhaps the formation of such community and faith-based offices at other levels were unintended by the Bush campaign, but even so they now mean that the work of governmental faith-based initiatives is no longer simply identical and coextensive with that of the White House office.