Promising to revamp President Bush's signature "faith-based initiatives," candidate Obama said he would forbid religious groups receiving government money from discriminating in their hiring practices. At the time, Lew Daly warned that constitutional law was not on Obama’s side, and that the proposed change threatened the cohesion of religious communities. The Obama administration has since decided to take the issue of hiring discrimination on a case-by-case basis. Daly's essay is worth another read to understand the importance of this little-noted tweak to Obama's campaign promises.

In remarks recently delivered at a community ministry in Zanesville, Ohio, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama pledged to revive George W. Bush’s “faith-based initiative.” It was to be Bush’s signature domestic policy, increasing the role of smaller faith-based providers in government social service programs. The surprising announcement strengthened Obama’s claim to a new kind of politics, even as he sharply contrasted his own faith-based vision with Bush’s “photo-op” version. For starters, he plans to provide an impressive $500 million annually to finance summer education programs for poor children. And, unlike Bush, he recognizes that social advocacy is as important as direct social aid, hewing more closely than Bush to the biblical tradition of linking compassion and charitable works with the critique of power and social injustice.

Commentators have focused on whether Obama’s faith-based plan will work as a political calculation to win over evangelicals and Catholics who voted for Bush. Yet they miss that Obama’s move on a new faith-based program comes naturally to this former community organizer who, like any community organizer, knows that churches and faith-based coalitions have long been the most vital components of renewal efforts in urban America, not least of all in his old stomping ground of Chicago. His faith-based plan may indeed be an outgrowth of his previous (and, among presidential candidates, unprecedented) experience in this arena, and it may embody a genuine vision for fighting poverty in a country that has seen no real progress in this area in thirty years. Politically, however, it is designed to fail.

To understand why, it is important to remember why Bush’s original plan came to naught. It failed because of the entrenched influence of two powerful blocs in national politics: the cultural left of the Democratic Party and the anti-government right within the Republican Party, dominant in the Republican leadership from the White House on down. Most importantly, the latter’s majority control through 2006 basically insured that the faith-based initiative would not be able to deliver on its promise of bringing new help to distressed communities. Bush shares the blame for this because, Jesus and the Prophets be damned, he slashed program budgets and did little to challenge the laissez-faire Congress, a pattern of moral dysfunction culminating in his sickening disregard for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. All of this made it much easier for the cultural left to attack the faith-based initiative as nothing more than a bid to “tear down the wall” between church and state. And so poverty, the central issue, ended up as little more than a stage prop in the continuing culture war between religion and secularism in public life.

Obama’s surge into faith-based territory rejects destructive partisanship by embracing the potential of Bush’s original vision. However, on the most important (and controversial) issue of governance in this policy area—that of so-called religious hiring rights—Obama’s apparently unquestioning loyalty to the cultural left is a miscalculation that will undermine his ability to transform American politics on behalf of poor and distressed communities. There are two reasons why.

The first is simply that the law is not on his side. Civil rights law allows faith-based social agencies to make employment decisions based on religion, and the Supreme Court has found that, contrary to what Obama suggested in his Zanesville remarks, laws allowing such faith-based hiring do not violate the Constitution. Furthermore, no court has found that religious employment discretion is forfeited with the acceptance of government funds, and none of the various theories of “state action” developed to justify this notion has gained any traction in the courts either.

The second reason is moral. By restricting religious hiring rights, Obama’s faith-based initiative attacks the very thing it claims to be supporting. That is, it attacks communities. The Supreme Court’s greatest advocate for the poor, Justice William Brennan, explained this better than anyone in his separate opinion in Corporation of Presiding Bishop v. Amos (1987), the case that established the constitutionality of faith-based hiring rights. “For many individuals,” Brennan noted, “religious activity derives meaning in large measure from participation in a larger religious community. Such a community represents an ongoing tradition of shared beliefs, an organic entity not reducible to a mere aggregation of individuals.” He concluded that faith-based hiring rights as protected under civil rights law do not represent an unconstitutional “establishment” of religion, but merely the recognition that communities of believers lie at the heart of most religious traditions, and these have a right to maintain themselves as communities. For government to restrict the criteria and discretion that religious communities use to define and maintain their identities threatens the very existence of religion, as Justice Brennan (correctly) understood it. Obama’s rejection of religious hiring rights in his version of the faith-based initiative is constitutionally unnecessary; it is also destructive of his own stated goal of serving and protecting communities.

Eight years on in this important national debate about religious involvement in government social programs, the cultural left is still squandering the Democrats’ stake in our “republic’s faith-based future,” as John DiIulio has termed it. In this case particularly, the cultural left’s secularism is not only legally moribund, it is also politically blind. If Democrats want government to do more to help struggling communities, there is no better strategy to build support for such aid than enlisting smaller faith-based providers in the delivery of social services. Among other important changes, this will create a new class of stakeholders in the welfare state and a new source of legitimacy for social spending. After thirty years of calculated destruction of the public sector—and misguided secularism within it—that would indeed be a new kind of politics.