Gerson: Republicans Don't Own the Faith-Based Agenda

It was a remarkable, moving speech by a presumptive Democratic nominee for president on promoting faith-based solutions to urgent human needs.

"The men and women who work in faith-and-values-based organizations," he explained, "are driven by their spiritual commitment; to serve their God, they have sustained the drug-addicted, the mentally ill, the homeless; they have trained them, educated them, cared for them, healed them. Most of all, they have done what government can never do; what it takes [is] God's help, sometimes, for all of us to manage; they have loved them—loved their neighbors, no matter how beaten down, how hopeless, how despairing." And he went on to make some revolutionary political implications: "I believe government should play a greater role in sustaining this quiet transformation—not by dictating solutions from above, but by supporting the effective new policies that are rising up from below."

That was Vice President Al Gore, speaking at the Salvation Army in Atlanta in 1999, before George W. Bush's "faith-based initiative" became a culture war divide. This week, Barack Obama echoed these themes in a speech delivered in Zanesville, Ohio. "The challenges we face today—from saving our planet to ending poverty—are simply too big for government to solve alone," Obama explained. He proposed a new effort to "empower faith-based organizations."

Reading both speeches, Gore's is (against all expectations) more emotional and compelling. But Obama's remarks, in some ways, are more impressive. He showed the political maturity to embrace an idea now closely associated with President Bush—a wisdom he has also demonstrated in supporting Bush's massive and successful AIDS initiative.

There is nothing exclusively Republican about the faith-based agenda. The main beneficiaries, contrary to some accusations, are established groups such as Catholic Charities or Lutheran Social Services, along with community ministries in distressed areas. The men and women who run these organizations are heroic and principled. They also tend to embrace political liberalism. The faith-based initiative could never properly be called a payoff to the religious right.

Supporting it does, however, require a rejection of orthodox secularism—a belief that government funds should never benefit religious groups, even in the provision of secular social services. The challenge for a Democratic presidential candidate is that secularists have become a significant portion of the Democratic electorate. Political scientists describe a new kind of voter—the anti-fundamentalist—who is motivated by a resentment of religious conservatives. In 2006 Democratic congressional candidates won 74 percent of the secular vote. According to some estimates, secularists now constitute a larger portion of the Democratic coalition than organized labor.

So far, Obama's faith-based progressivism has caused little liberal backlash. Professional secularists, such as Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, were immediately critical of Obama's faith-based speech: "They say the devil is in the details. When it comes to the faith-based initiative, I'd rather just let the devil have the details, along with the entire initiative." But liberal bloggers were more skeptical than angry. One called the faith-based initiative "creepy." This is more distaste than disdain.

Perhaps Obama is given leeway on this issue because of his own background and evident sincerity. To remove this element of his political approach would be to remove large chunks of his biography. As a Chicago community organizer, Obama saw the indispensable role of religious institutions in compassion and social change. And that example was a cause of his religious conversion. "So it's 1985," he explains, "and I'm in Chicago, and I'm working with these churches, and with lots of laypeople who are much older than I am. And I found that I recognized in these folks a part of myself. I learned that everyone's got a sacred story when you take the time to listen … And slowly, I came to realize that something was missing as well—that without an anchor for my beliefs, without a commitment to a particular community of faith, at some level I would always remain apart, and alone. And it's around this time that some pastors I was working with came up to me and asked if I was a member of a church. 'If you're organizing churches,' they said, 'it might be helpful if you went to church once in a while'."

His faith-based speech this week represents Obama at his best: creative, morally rooted and generous. It also represents American politics at its best—a belief in service and citizenship that genuinely transcends partisanship. Obama has embraced the faith-based initiative associated with Bush (though the senator disagrees with the president on the rights of groups that receive federal money to hire according to religious beliefs). John McCain, we should remember, has been a strong supporter of the AmeriCorps service program associated with Bill Clinton. Effective candidates, and effective presidents, adopt the best of the past and brand it as their own.