Much hay in the lib­er­alos­phere has been made in the last few days over Barack Obama’s appar­ent will­ing­ness to for­ward the Bush administration’s “faith-​​based” char­ity pro­gram. There are dis­tinct tones of out­rage and betrayal, and while I most cer­tainly agree that the Fed putting money into any reli­gious char­ity is a recipe for dis­as­ter (this is just a lit­tle too close to breach of the estab­lish­ment clause for my per­sonal taste), I won­der why there’s so much surprise.

In the last few weeks, after all, Obama’s cam­paign has been shift­ing to a “cen­trist” mes­sage1, one which includes over­tures to the ultra-​​right fringe.2 He’s waf­fled on GLBT rights — though he has, um, come out against California vot­ers’ desire to ban same-​​gender mar­riage in that state — and he’s actively scam­per­ing away from Muslimish appearances.

So it really isn’t too shock­ing that he’d think the Federal government’s deci­sion to sup­port reli­gious insti­tu­tions finan­cially is per­fectly fine. In the last eight years, after all, we’ve seen the Bush admin­is­tra­tion actively erod­ing Constitutional bar­ri­ers which pre­vi­ously seemed as imper­me­able as, well, lev­ees on the Mississippi. This fur­ther impor­tu­na­tion by the wedge has a feel­ing of hope­less inevitabil­ity about it.

Contrary argu­ments seem to hold that reli­gious char­i­ties are more diverse, more pen­e­tra­tively deployed and, pos­si­bly, more effec­tive than mono­lithic gov­ern­ment pro­grams. This is almost cer­tainly true. The down­side of that, of course, is that it’s also almost cer­tainly true that a faith-​​based char­ity will, on one level or another, pros­e­ly­tize — not nec­es­sar­ily delib­er­ately, but unde­ni­ably tacitly.

And there are other problems.

In Virginia there’s an orga­ni­za­tion called Commonwealth Catholic Charities. They care for kids of var­i­ous ages, all of them chil­dren of ille­gal immi­grants. They feed, house and clothe some of the least-​​empowered human beings in American soci­ety — a soci­ety which seems hell-​​bent on per­se­cut­ing them sim­ply for hav­ing the temer­ity to exist. This is obvi­ously a wor­thy mis­sion, and one I could unhesi­tat­ingly applaud if it were secular.

The source of my hes­i­ta­tion, though, rests with the story that four work­ers at CCC were let go a while back for help­ing a sixteen-​​year-​​old girl obtain an abortion.

CCC is falling all over itself apol­o­giz­ing for the event, since under Catholic pol­icy the fetus is always at least as impor­tant as the mother, and in many cases more so. Rather than take into account the ghastly bur­den an infant would be on a teenaged girl who has no legal right to live in the US at all, CCC is treat­ing the abor­tion as a tragedy equiv­a­lent to infanticide.

I’m aware that the Catholic church demands this of its fol­low­ers. Many other reli­gions expect the same of their mem­ber­ship. The phrase sanc­tity of life is trot­ted out so often that it’s effec­tively a ver­bal blind spot; we gloss it over with­out gen­er­ally ask­ing whose life, pre­cisely, is being con­sid­ered in the equa­tion. And because we have a ten­dency in the US to treat reli­gious belief with utter respect — even when it is intel­lec­tu­ally, log­i­cally, eth­i­cally and humanely void — we might be apt to shrug and say, hey, if the Catholics want to believe that, it’s none of our business.

But with Federal money being poured into church-​​driven char­i­ties, it actu­ally is our busi­ness. One seri­ous issue with what hap­pened in the CCC case is that they are accept­ing Federal money, and it is ille­gal for Federal money to be used to obtain an abortion.

Illegality aside, the influ­ence that CCC would oth­er­wise have exerted on this girl — essen­tially forc­ing her to give birth — based solely on reli­gious rea­sons should give any of us pause. That they are work­ing under the aegis of being a faith-​​based ini­tia­tive mon­ey­taker is a con­sid­er­able indict­ment of the entire con­cept that our gov­ern­ment, which should be and must always remain sec­u­lar, can play fringe games with reli­gious estab­lish­ment in this fashion.

The faith-​​based ini­tia­tive is bad enough as it is. That Barack Obama wants to expand it should damn well be a major issue to any­one who plans to live in the US until at least 2012.

W.B. Yeats’s poem, The Second Coming, keeps com­ing back to me, more and more, as this dreadfully-​​overdrawn elec­tion cycle drags on:

Turning and turn­ing in the widen­ing gyre
The fal­con can­not hear the fal­coner;
Things fall apart; the cen­ter can­not hold;
Mere anar­chy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-​​dimmed tide is loosed, and every­where
The cer­e­mony of inno­cence is drowned;
The best lack all con­vic­tion, while the worst
Are full of pas­sion­ate intensity.

Surely some rev­e­la­tion is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: some­where in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and piti­less as the sun,
Is mov­ing its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shad­ows of the indig­nant desert birds.
The dark­ness drops again; but now I know
That twenty cen­turies of stony sleep
Were vexed to night­mare by a rock­ing cra­dle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Is this elec­tion going to pro­duce a hawk in patriot’s cloth­ing, or a new bush wait­ing to burn in the desert and lead a nation into forty years of blind wan­der­ing?
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1. Relatively cen­trist. Against the back­drop of our cur­rent social frame­work, he’s still too lib­eral for many; how­ever, his “cen­ter” shift here is approx­i­mately as right-​​wing fruit­cake as Jerry Falwell was when he started the Moral Majority (which is nei­ther) in the late 1970s.

2. I real­ize this phrase might be read as elit­ist by some. I have no prob­lem being labeled an elit­ist, as it implies any­one so label­ing me is infe­rior to me by default.

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