LAST WEEK, Barack Obama made front-page news by announcing he would expand so-called faith-based initiatives, channeling federal money into social services through religiously affiliated institutions. The move was seen as a wily appeal to conservative Christians. Liberals were skeptical. Under President Bush, "faith-based" is a fig-leaf for the naked removal of government from its role as social service provider. Bush has crassly exploited religion for partisan political purposes, even while drafting religion into the Republican war against "big government." Was this Obama's push-back?
A former community organizer, the Illinois senator and Democratic presidential candidate declared that struggles against poverty and disease require "all hands on deck," as if acknowledging the limits of government. He may not be old enough to have enlisted in President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty, but he surely knows that religiously affiliated institutions were one of its fronts. As anyone who remembers, say, Martin Luther King Jr.'s Poor People's Campaign, knows, "faith-based" can be code as much for progressive social change as for conservative reaction. Many of Obama's predecessor community organizers were paid through congregations with grants from Johnson's Great Society.
But the discussion of faith-based initiatives suggests that Obama's religion problem goes deeper, even, than rumors about his being Muslim or the Jeremiah Wright controversy. The social liberalism that defines much of the Democratic Party, and, apparently, Obama, upholds an ideal of tolerance that transcends religious identity. It refuses to brand the irreligious, or even the antireligious, as somehow less human than those who worship God. Indeed, liberalism regards the openly secular character of the political realm to be an essential note of democracy - not a necessary evil, but a positive good. "Secular" is not a pejorative. Its tolerance tolerates even religious conservatives who are intolerant.
Such tolerance is a political virtue, but it can be a deeply religious virtue as well. Religion is mostly discussed, in the US political context, as if the main argument is between believers and nonbelievers. But the most important disagreement is between religious people who value the secular character of American politics and religious people who regard it as impious. The Republicans have benefited from this dispute because Democrats who are religious have failed to defend the liberal ideal of public religious neutrality as necessary not only for politics, but for authentic religion. It is not only atheists who need to be protected from the intrusions of a faith-defined government. So do the faithful.
The much-celebrated freedom that is the ground of the American consensus is, above all, freedom of mind and heart; freedom to think and believe as one chooses; freedom of conscience. Without that, there is no genuine democracy. But, more to our point, without that, there is no genuine religion. The only possible guarantor of such freedom, as the Founders understood, is a magistrate who acts with absolute religious neutrality. Religious people, that is, need the separation of church and state as much as atheists do. That separation, in fact, is why religion thrives in America.
But in recent years, as US politics was yoked to brands of conservative religion that wanted to blur the line between church and state, those religious believers for whom the secularity of liberal democracy is a value have been mute. In the public sphere, questions of religion have been treated as the province of the right wing, presided over by "values voters." Thus "faith-based initiatives" have been put forward - and opposed - as if church basements have not been incubators of progressive social reform for generations. But religious liberals have feared that to make the argument for the expressly religious value of secularity in a democratic society is to offend nonreligious voters by even speaking of religion, and religious voters by affirming secularity. Lose, lose.
Obama seems ready to offend. He does not shy from the label "liberal." He talks openly of religion's meaning in his life. He has credentials as one who has long embraced faith-based social activism, even while affirming government's central role as provider of services. Whether he will convincingly recast the shallow discussion of religion and politics that has defined the last American generation remains to be seen. But in this, as in much else, we can only wish him well.
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.