In Godly Republic, University of Pennsylvania political scientist and former Director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives John DiIulio places himself squarely in the center of the debate over what he calls, in the book's subtitle, "America's faith-based future." Attempting to carve out a position between those of the secularist Left and the religious Right, DiIulio offers an appealing pluralist vision of a "godly republic," where people of all faiths, and of no faith, are welcome to participate in the political process, as well as to cooperate with and benefit from the government.
The rhetorical device he uses is to set us straight about five pairs of opposed "myths." Thus we have, he argues, a "godly republic," not a secular state or a Christian nation; our Constitution demands that the government be neutral between religion and irreligion, rather than that church and state be strictly separated or that religion receive special treatment; and our policies generally reflect a faith-friendly middle ground, rather than doing the bidding of either the secular Left or the Religious Right. Furthermore, research shows that faith-based organizations are neither a panacea nor a placebo in dealing with social problems; and, finally, we can find and build a common ground between the extreme positions staked out on the left and the right, using religion to ameliorate rather than exacerbate political divisions, as well as social problems.
There is much to admire in this eminently readable book. From appealing stories about leaders and organizations dedicated to dealing with some of our most intractable social problems to hard-nosed examinations of what works and what doesn't (or might not) in our social policies, DiIulio offers a vision of faith friendly policy that is free from parochialism and cant. What's important is not what makes us feel good, but what works, measured by the most rigorous tools of social science. In offering this account, DiIulio confirms his reputation as someone both sympathetic to the plight of the least among us and yet unsentimental about how we should help them raise themselves up. This combination of clearsightedness and compassion is a rare treasure, to be cherished and praised wherever it is found.
Of course, wherever there's passion, there's also the risk that it can lead us astray. And, having been led astray himself, DiIulio would have us follow. His particular sticking point is connected with faith-based hiring rights, a major bone of contention in the politicking over the Bush Administration's attempts to extend its faith-based initiative legislatively. Rather than state clearly the statutory and constitutional facts of the matter, DiIulio muddies the waters, giving aid and comfort to those who describe mission-sensitive hiring by faith-based government contractors as publicly funded discrimination rather than to those who would make concern for religious freedom the centerpiece of any cooperation between faith-based organizations and government.
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To appreciate the slipperiness or sloppiness of DiIulio's statements, it's first necessary to understand the state of the law. The right of religious organizations to take religion into account in their hiring—even for non-ministerial positions—was acknowledged by the 1964 Civil Rights Act (as amended in 1972), unanimously upheld by the Supreme Court in Corporation of the Presiding Bishop v. Amos (1987), and codified with respect to government contractors for certain programs in a series of bills signed into law by President Bill Clinton. These religious hiring rights are understood to be established legislatively, and to be permitted—but not required—by the Constitution. In addition, there is a "ministerial exemption" in hiring, restricted to positions of religious and doctrinal leadership and founded on the First Amendment religion clauses, not on any particular statute. Both grounds of religious hiring rights aim to respect religious freedom and minimize government interference into the internal organization and administration of religious groups. But the rights granted positively by statute extend further than those carved out by the judicial interpretation of the First Amendment. Thus in the Corporation of the Presiding Bishop case, the Supreme Court upheld the right of an Mormon-affiliated gymnasium to require all its employees—even a building custodian—to be in good standing with the church.
The complexity of the law in these matters shouldn't account for the confusions in DiIulio's presentation of them. On at least three occasions, for example, he confuses the religious hiring rights recognized in the statute with the narrower ministerial exemption rooted in the First Amendment. On three other occasions, he asserts that using tax dollars to hire only co-religionists is "plainly unconstitutional" (something with which a federal judge, writing in Lown, et al. v. Salvation Army, did not agree). Elsewhere, while affirming the right to engage in "mission-sensitive hiring," he asserts that a publicly funded organization can't, consistently with the Constitution, "summarily deny employment to otherwise qualified program staff, strictly to satisfy its sectarian character or religious preferences." By contrast, he comes close to getting matters right in this statement:
[I]n their capacities as houses of worship, faith-based organizations...have a near absolute constitutional right to take religion into account in making employment decisions.... Likewise, in supplying social services without any public funds, their right to hire on religious grounds remains near absolute. But, when supplying social services with public funds, they must honor all existing federal civil rights laws governing employment and may be subject to other federal, state, and local employment anti-discrimination laws. The 1996 [charitable choice] law explicitly directed that "a religious organization's exemption provided under section 702 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964...shall not be affected by its participation in, or receipt of funds from," the relevant federal programs.
But there is an ambiguity expressed in the relationship between the penultimate and final sentences that casts a shadow on religious hiring rights. Faith-sensitive hiring is, in effect, "discrimination," covered by anti-discrimination law, except in the narrow case he notes. Religious freedom takes a back seat to non-discrimination.
In three other instances, DiIulio treats hiring employees in the same context as dealing with clients, as if the presumptive illegitimacy of refusing to serve clients on religious grounds necessarily carries over into hiring decisions. But he provides no evidence that groups that wish to hire only employees who subscribe to the faith-based mission of the organization also are willing to serve only co-religionist clients. Indeed, I suspect that the groups most interested in hiring only those of like-minded faith would also be most interested in reaching out to non-believers. For them, the occasion of service is also an occasion to witness—subject of course to restrictions about proselytizing with government money.
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Why can't a man of DiIulio's evident intelligence seem to keep these matters straight? Why is he at best indifferent, and at worst hostile, to the religious staffing concerns of what he (and others) call "faith-saturated" programs?
One possible reason is that he is admirably results-oriented when it comes to the cooperation of faith-based organizations with government. The point, he reminds us over and over again, is not to funnel money to faith-based organizations, but to help those in need. When it comes to social policy, we should look at what works, not what satisfies our religious or secular sensitivities. To the degree that this insistence on measurable results turns us away from a debate over church-state relations that tends to generate more heat than light, DiIulio's argument serves a laudable purpose. But because he's not convinced that faith-saturated programs are more effective than their marginally faith-based counterparts and because he is convinced that "the vast majority" of all the organizations that work with those most in need are of the latter sort, he's willing to steer well clear of the constitutional controversies that arise when secularist groups challenge government cooperation with the former. Let's not argue about whether esoteric First Amendment doctrine permits government money to pay the salaries of those who must subscribe to a statement of faith in order to participate in helping the poor, he says, let's just get the job done. What he means, of course, is that he's willing to sacrifice a "paper-thin slice of America's spiritual capital pie" in order to facilitate programs involving cooperation with groups that are less spiritually demanding.
This line of argument may also serve another purpose as DiIulio thinks about "America's faith-based future." The Democrats now in control of Congress and who stand a good chance of controlling the White House in 2009 have constituencies adamantly opposed to religious hiring rights. Secularist and gay advocacy groups will not stand for government cooperation with organizations whose religious and religiously inspired moral commitments require them to make spiritual and moral demands of their employees. If anything of the faith-based initiative is to survive the Bush Administration, these rights will have to be soft-pedaled, if not abandoned altogether.
John DiIulio has made a career of telling hard truths about America's poor to his conservative friends. In so doing, he has found respect, admiration, and an audience on the right. But he seems far less willing to tell hard truths about religious liberty to his liberal friends. I wonder why. Does this tell us something about his concern for religious liberty or about his estimation of the respect for that liberty on the left?
In the end, I'm left with the following reflection about DiIulio, the hard-headed scholar and passionate advocate and activist. The way in which his life demonstrates a genuine concern about the issues he studies is immensely admirable. His advocacy and activism are clearly informed and strengthened by his formidable learning and intelligence, which lend him an intellectual authority to go along with his moral authority. But in the case of religious hiring rights, his passion seems to interfere with his intellectual clarity, causing him to misstate truths he should (and I expect does) understand. Perhaps he regards this as an acceptable price to pay in order to help those most in need. I regard it as the diminution of a powerful voice that has hitherto sought to bring light where too many others bring only heat.