By Barry Lynn
For four years now, Americans United has been urging President Barack Obama to fix the “faith-based” initiative.
In all honesty, “fix” is not our preferred word. We’d rather the administration end the faith-based initiative. But we know that’s not likely to happen, so we’ve been urging the president and his advisors to make some fundamental changes.
For starters, the president ought to do something he said he would do back in 2008 before he was elected: end taxpayer-funded job bias in these programs. In Zanesville, Ohio, Obama made a major speech on the faith-based initiative and vowed to make certain that religious groups that receive taxpayer money to provide secular public services do not discriminate on religious grounds when hiring staff.
After the election, Obama’s staff said job bias would be examined on a “case-by-case” basis. We have no idea what this means or if it’s even happening.
Americans United and our allies in the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination have sought clarification from Joshua Dubois, head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. We’ve also written to the staff persons in the faith-based offices in various federal agencies asking them how they interpret the “case-by-case” language and what they’ve done in this area.
The response has been overwhelming silence. It seems that Dubois and other officials who promote the initiative don’t have time to reply.
What a surprise, then, to read that Dubois does have time to meet with Lamar Vest, president and CEO of the American Bible Society. According to Fox News, Dubois and Vest are “to begin a dialogue on the importance of the Bible in the founding of the country.”
I’d like to save Dubois and Vest some time. The United States was not founded on the Bible. It was not founded on the Koran. It was not founded on the Bhagavad Gita. It was not founded on any holy book.
If you read the Constitution and then the Bible you will see major differences. In the Bible there is no Bill of Rights, no representative democracy, no equal branches of government with “checks and balances” and no “We the people.”
So where exactly are these “scriptural” underpinnings to our government? I think they exist mainly in the minds of some people who are literally rewriting American history. An essay on the Bible Society website by the ministry’s former president Paul G. Irwin is riddled with faulty history, including a phony quotation by James Madison lauding the Ten Commandments as the basis of government. (Madison never said that.)
Real historians know why this “biblical nation” line is bogus. Martin E. Marty, a well-known religion scholar at the University of Chicago Divinity School, wrote a seminal article about this back in 1994. He examined two large volumes covering the debate over ratification of the Constitution. He found few biblical references.
Marty observed, “Whether the general absence of the biblical God is intentional or reflects the habits of the Enlightenment, it is significant…. The citation of the Bible as authority is extremely rare.”
After Dubois meets with the Bible Society’s Vest, I hope he finds time to talk with civil rights and civil liberties experts who want to discuss important issues of public policy. He may not like everything we have to say about the faith-based initiative, but at least our arguments have this going for them: They are grounded in reality, not wish fulfillment.