President Barack Obama delivers a eulogy for the late Rev. Clementa Pinckney, at the TD Arena in Charleston, S.C., on Friday. Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

Faith, the Public Square and the ACLU…

The following was originally published on July 6th, 2008 at Talking Points Memo and the original Fort McHenry at

Malcolm Johnson
13 min readAug 2, 2016


Senator Barack Obama’s recent speech on faith has caused some people to freak out.

Well, I would have freaked out too, if I hadn’t been reading his other speeches, reading his books, or just not paying attention to the altogether.

But he has saying these things. He’s been saying them for years, and one organization out there probably has some surprising things to say to him about Faith and the Public Square…

On July 1st, Barack Obama went to Zanesville,Ohio to give a speech about Faith. It was notable, not for the fact that a Democrat was out there, openly talking about his religious convictions (in a way the Republican Candidate won’t be), but for his proposal to, apparently, expand on Bush’s Faith based Programs. At least that’s what the headline writers focused on:

CHICAGO — Reaching out to evangelical voters, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama is announcing plans to expand President Bush’s program steering federal social service dollars to religious groups and — in a move sure to cause controversy — support some ability to hire and fire based on faith.

And with that, a million hearts across America started to break. If you listen carefully, you can hear the tiny violin I’m playing for them right now.

That is the opening paragraph of the AP story posted early in the morning of July 1st.

One problem…the AP got it wrong.

Here’s what the Senator actually said:

Now, make no mistake, as someone who used to teach constitutional law, I believe deeply in the separation of church and state, but I don’t believe this partnership will endanger that idea — so long as we follow a few basic principles. First, if you get a federal grant, you can’t use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can’t discriminate against them — or against the people you hire — on the basis of their religion. Second, federal dollars that go directly to churches, temples, and mosques can only be used on secular programs. And we’ll also ensure that taxpayer dollars only go to those programs that actually work.

Gee, AP. I can totally see how you got that confused.

Note to the AP, you might lay off the sprinkled donuts. Just hand them to John McCain, don’t snack on them yourselves. You get a sugar rush, and apparently, it affects your reporting.

A friend of mine sent me an email that same morning. His tone was one of clear disappointment. He lamented Bush’s blurring of church and state, and was disappointed that Senator Obama seemed to be headed on a similar course.

A lot of us on the left have been freaking out about the Senator’s recent, so-called shift to the center, saying he’s already playing not to lose. But for anyone who’s read the Senator’s speeches, read his books, or has been…you know…paying attention…his stance shouldn’t come as a total surprise. I think the problem comes down to his one paragraph that I don’t think a lot of people read on Page 11 of The Audacity of Hope:

I am new enough on the national political scene that I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views. As such, I am bound to disappoint some, if not all, of them. Which perhaps indicates a second, more intimate theme to this book-namely, how I, or anybody in public office, can avoid the pitfalls of fame, the hunger to please, the fear of loss, and thereby retain that kernel of truth, that singular voice within each of us that reminds us of our deepest commitments.

As much as he is one of us, Senator Obama is his own man, capable of an independent thought or two, even those of us on the left uncomfortable.

Funny thing, I thought that’s why we liked him.

Traditional liberal discomfort with the notion of Religion stretches back to a more fundamental discomfort with Religion in the public square. Let’s face it, Religion has been used as a weapon so many times, that it’s hard not to view it with suspicion. Added to that, so many Religious types have revealed themselves to be nothing more than knee-jerk, mouth-breathing Conservatives, therefore, the enemy. These (among others) are the reason why so many of us have shifted away from Church. Why sit in the pews, and have things that you cherish and believe in belittled by your Pastor, Reverend or Priest?

Senator Obama put it another way:

At best, [Democrats] avoid the conversation about religious values altogether, fearful of offending anyone and claiming that — regardless of our personal beliefs — constitutional principles tie our hands. At worst, there are some liberals who dismiss religion in the public square as inherently irrational or intolerant, insisting on a caricature of religious Americans that paints them as fanatical, or thinking that the very word “Christian” describes one’s political opponents, not people of faith.

Mind you, that was from the same speech that got James Dobson’s knickers in a twist.

Liberals, however, have a heritage of using Religion, and Religious imagery as both sword and shield. The moral underpinnings of the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Sufferage, the Labor Movement carried with it the morality and justice of the Church (the kind we all used to love) that ushered in these new ages and new ideas.

Martin Luther King, after all, was a Baptist Minister. He wasn’t thanking Gaea, Zeus, Xenu or the Earth Spirit, when he extolled that we would be “Free at Last”.

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right,” Lincoln said in his second Inaugural Address.

Shortly before resorting to the “Johnson Treatment”, LBJ would often say “Come now, let us reason together”, which was taken from Isaiah 1:18.

Impressed? Don’t be. I had to look ’em all up.

So, when Senator Obama talked his talk in Zanesville, he was echoing words he wrote back on page 221 of The Audacity of Hope:

Allowing the use of school property for meeting by voluntary student prayer groups should not be a treat, any more than its use by the high school Republican Club should threaten Democrats. And one can envision certain faith-based programs — targeting ex-offenders or substance abusers — that offer a uniquely powerful way of solving problems and here merit carefully tailored support.

This position is unacceptable to a lot of progressives. They believe, as I do, in the separation of church and state. After all, another friend told me, it’s in the Constitution.

Yeah…except for the part where it isn’t…at least not explicitly.

Oh boy, this is going to be complicated.

(Okay, let me first say that I’m a total layman. I don’t have a Law Degree, so if there are any Lawyers out there reading this, and I’ve totally blown this, lemme know.)

Okay, first things first. Separation of Church and state.

Nowhere in the Constitution can you find the phrase “Separation of Church and state” Instead, the First Amendment says this:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

It’s also mentioned, briefly in Article 6:

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

Now, I am by no means saying that the Separation of Church and State is a false idea. Quite the contrary, it is as basic to the American ideal as the right to bear arms is. It may not say as much in the Constitution, but it has (right or wrong) become a part of who we are.

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Apparently, Justice Scalia decided to delete that first part. Then again, who cares what the Framers thought, right fat man?

Looking at Wikipedia, the concept of Separation of Church and State seems to trace its origin to a letter from Thomas Jefferson in 1801 to the Danbury Baptists:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.

Okay, it may not be in the Constitution, and I have no idea if it even counts as one of the Federalist Papers, but one of the Founders clearly believes there to be a wall between the two.

The Senator reiterated this point in the Call to Renewal speech:

[Conservative Leaders] need to understand the critical role that the separation of church and state has played in preserving not only our democracy, but the robustness of our religious practice. Folks tend to forget that during our founding, it wasn’t the atheists or the civil libertarians who were the most effective champions of the First Amendment. It was the persecuted minorities, it was Baptists like John Leland who didn’t want the established churches to impose their views on folks who were getting happy out in the fields and teaching the scripture to slaves. It was the forbearers of the evangelicals who were the most adamant about not mingling government with religious, because they did not want state-sponsored religion hindering their ability to practice their faith as they understood it.

Consider this put another way, from another source:

Religious freedom is a fundamental human right that is guaranteed by the First Amendment’s Free Exercise and Establishment clauses. It encompasses not only the right to believe (or not to believe), but also the right to express and to manifest religious beliefs. These rights are fundamental and should not be subject to political process and majority votes.

Wow. Who said that?

Apparently, those infamous right-wing Religious Fundamentalists, the ACLU.

Yeah, that ACLU. Our ACLU. The one I was a card-carrying member of (at $35 bucks a pop.)

They go on:

Religion is pervasive in the public square in the United States — and it is constitutionally protected.

And to further back the Senator up, the ACLU says:

Children are free to pray in public schools either as individuals or in groups. In addition, whenever a teacher opens up an assignment topic for the children’s choice (such as which book to read, what to discuss in a talk to the class, or which song to sing), students may choose religious themes — and the ACLU has protected their right to do so. In addition, schools may offer courses about religion or about the Bible or other religious works.

Basically, the notion of prayer in the public schools is not illegal…so long as it is being exercised by individual citizens. Even Teachers can join in, so long as they are acting as individual citizens. The nanosecond such prayer becomes a mandate by these employees of the state, then they’re violating the Establishment Clause.

It’s a fine line, and even we liberals don’t know it all the time. I really didn’t know it until I did the research for this piece. It is so often said that Prayer in Public Schools is illegal. It’s not…depending on how its performed.

So the ACLU is okay with Senator’s notion of Prayer in the Public Schools.

But they go further still. They actually have an opinion on Faith-Based programs. And what they said shocked me further still:

Supporting the good work of faith-based social service providers should not mean abandoning basic American ideals. We must not allow the vital services of faith-based groups to become co-opted by the administration as mere government-funded religion.

The government already can and does work collaboratively with faith-based organizations. It has long granted tax dollars to religious social service providers that agree not to discriminate in hiring or providing services, and that operate their social services in a secular manner. These types of religiously affiliated charities do not deny people employment based on faith, nor do they mix religious activity in with their government-funded services.

I have a strange hunch that the ACLU will have no problem with what Senator Obama is trying to do. In fairness, they have fought, and continue to fight against aspects of these same Faith-based programs that discriminate, divide or (more importantly) directly violate the establishment clause.

But that’s exactly the situation the Senator is looking to avoid:

Now, I know there are some who bristle at the notion that faith has a place in the public square. But the fact is, leaders in both parties have recognized the value of a partnership between the White House and faith-based groups. President Clinton signed legislation that opened the door for faith-based groups to play a role in a number of areas, including helping people move from welfare to work. Al Gore proposed a partnership between Washington and faith-based groups to provide more support for the least of these. And President Bush came into office with a promise to “rally the armies of compassion,” establishing a new Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

But what we saw instead was that the Office never fulfilled its promise. Support for social services to the poor and the needy have been consistently underfunded. Rather than promoting the cause of all faith-based organizations, former officials in the Office have described how it was used to promote partisan interests. As a result, the smaller congregations and community groups that were supposed to be empowered ended up getting short-changed.

So what is Senator Obama proposing to do? You can say a lot of things, but when the AP says “expand” the connotation is that he wants to take Bush’s program and make it bigger. Reading his speech, something I encourage everyone to do, I think he’s looking to scrap a program that has been bitterly partisan and ineffective and helping those it claims to help.

The partisan part of the Office is what drives those hard memories around the Liberal Blogosphere. It’s what drove David Kuo to resign and write his book. The Office was little more than a tax-payer funded bribe machine, paying off well-connected Religious Leaders to make sure the Conservative Base turned out in 2004. It’s remarkable how little we’ve heard from the Office since then. It seems to have gone to the same place all those Orange Alerts went in anticipation of the Democratic Convention.

Now we have Senator Obama proposing a seemingly better version of the same idea. If anything, he wants to help fellow Community Organizers do his old job better. But does the Senator proposing a thing automatically make it a good idea? No. But conversely, just because George Bush proposes an idea, doesn’t automatically make it bad either. (I so wish I could take credit for that, but I was writing this at the same time E.J. Dionne was writing his piece, and he is a writer of bigger stature so…sigh…he gets the credit.)

I’m not sure if this a good idea or not. For one thing, what’s going to be the criteria? Are you telling me that a group of Wiccans will be able to access Federal Funds if they have an effective Drug Treatment Program? Can a group of Atheists get some dough if they have a way to help First Time Offenders transition back to normal society? Could Tom Cruise and John Travolta (shudder) get Federal Dollars for Narconon?

Perish the thought.

Still, my feeling is yes, right or wrong, for Obama’s idea to work they have to. After all, his program is going to be called the Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Neighborhood is the key word here. But as the Senator said, he doesn’t have all the details worked out yet. This is one area that will bear watching.

Another thing, as much as I am opposed to the idea, there will be another Republican in the White House one of these days (2050 anyone?). What’s to stop him or her from turning this Office into the same Partisan cesspool it was under Bush?

Probably nothing.

In the end, we are Liberals after all; and Liberals are the tolerant ones. We should not be scared of this idea, or any of the Senator’s ideas; even the ones that contradict our own. They are nothing if not thought out. They always come from a place that we as Democrats, much less Liberals and/or Progressives, can access and access easily, love of country, love of our fellow man.

It is for our fellow man, that we do these things, fight these fights.

Our fellow man has decided that he wants to go to church. No matter what you think of the idea or think of his practice, it is ultimately his choice and his choice alone. If you are a Liberal, you willdefend his right to make that choice. It is a Conservative who seeks to tell him where to go, what to do, and who to pray to. The Liberal only wants to make sure that nothing bars that man’s path to God, no matter what God it may be.

Right or wrong, I don’t think Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, despite my own reservations will do that.

But in the end, those you of with doubts about Senator Obama, remember, he also said this in The Audacity of Hope:

I suspect that some readers may find my presentation of these issues to be insufficiently balanced. To this accusation, I stand guilty as charged. I am a Democrat, after all; my views on most topics correspond more closely to the editorial pages of the New York Times than those of the Wall Street Journal. I am angry about policies that consistently favor the wealthy and powerful over average Americans, and insist that government has an important role in opening up opportunity to all. I believe in evolution, scientific inquiry, and global warming; I believe in free speech, whether politically correct or politically incorrect, and I am suspicious of using government to impose anybody’s religious beliefs-including my own-on nonbelievers.Furthermore, I am a prisoner of my own biography: I can’t help but view the American experience through the lens of a black man of mixed heritage, forever mindful of how generations of people who looked like me were subjugated and stigmatized, and the subtle and not so subtle ways that race and class continue to shape our lives.

Good enough for me.