Church and State

Posted March 17, 2009, at 7:54 p.m.

Like every president since Dwight D. Eisenhower, President Obama attended this year’s annual National Prayer Breakfast. He used the occasion to announce the creation of a White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnership, much like a similar office established by President George W. Bush.

And, like President Bush, President Obama has stirred up various criticisms including accusations that the program could violate the traditional separation of church and state. Organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State contend that it violates the Constitution’s establishment clause by using tax money to fund religion. The clause says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Mr. Bush ran into further trouble. His first director of the faith-based charities office, John Dilulio, a University of Pennsylvania political science professor, quit the position and became a critic of the Bush administration. And a fictional TV and Internet character named Betty Bowers continually ridicules the program.

Promptly after Mr. Obama’s announcement, the ultraconservative Weekly Standard magazine came out with the accusation that one member of the new advisory council, the Rev. Otis Moss Jr. of Cleveland, was a “political preacher.” The magazine suggested darkly that “perhaps the quiet installation of Moss is part of a grander design for the faith-based office: to make it a mechanism for nationwide ‘community organizing.’” It went on: “ By tapping the likes of Moss to help steer his faith-based policies, Obama could be using the White House to ‘translate the energy’ of black churches into ‘creating lasting institutions’ of left-wing political agitation.”

Such foolishness aside, there remains the serious constitutional question of whether the separation of church and state is in jeopardy. Actually, the two never have been totally separate. Coins and currency say, “In God we trust.” The Declaration of Independence refers to “Nature’s God” and rights endowed by the “Creator.”

Describing the new office, a White House statement said that President Obama firmly supports the separation of church and state and that the executive director would seek advice of the attorney general on “difficult legal and constitutional issues.”

The faith-based office must see to it that taxpayer funds never are used to promote a particular sect or religion in general. Also, there is the ticklish question of whether religious groups that get federal funds discriminate in hiring people to operate their charities.

Seventy-five percent of Americans call themselves Christian, according to a new Trinity College survey. That is down from 86 percent in 1990, while atheism and agnosticism have grown. One in five Americans expressed no religious preference.

President Obama, while a devout Christian, has promised the American people to respect all religions as well as “those of no faith.”

The program probably will get and deserve broad public acceptance. Religious organizations always have served secular needs, including founding many of our colleges and universities and operating health centers including Bangor’s St. Joseph Hospital.

Religion, with its emphasis on good works, has a place in efforts to improve quality of life.

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