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The New York Sun


Obama and Bush Share Face

July 03, 2008

By John H. McWhorter

No matter what, a good number continue to think Barack Obama is a Muslim. They don't do their homework.

One could say the same thing of people claiming we "don't know what Obama believes," that he is a smooth talker devoid of substance.

That indicates a certain discernment, a resistance to being seduced by surfaces. But all you have to do to get a sense of what Barack Obama is about is look at his Web site. There is plenty of policy there; he does not hold back.

The problem is less that he does not tell us what he is about than that what he is about is not a matter of memory-friendly sound bites. It's that sort of thing, such as his opposition to the summer gas tax holiday, that sticks in people's minds.

This is less true of things like his proposal this week to continue and expand President Bush's Faith-Based Initiatives. That's unfortunate, because this is big news. It means that one thing Mr. Obama is "about" is helping poor people, especially ones of color.

It's easy to dismiss Mr. Obama's "bipartisan" intentions as a mere matter of sloganeering. However, the Faith-Based Initiatives are Exhibit A in splitting the difference between left and right.

The idea is to earmark funds for churches and other religious organizations to assist those in need in their communities. The orientation is bottom-up, along the lines of the self-help paradigm dear to conservatives, but funded by the government, as liberals support.

Under the radar, Faith-Based Initiatives have been funded by the Bush administration for several years now. For example, the Ready4Work program provides a web of services and ongoing mentoring to ex-cons. It was established as a pilot program in 17 sites in 2003 while the press was focused on the war in Iraq.

After a year, only half as many of its clients were back in prison as the national average. A year later President Bush announced the Prisoner Re-entry Initiative, and it lives on.

However, few are aware of this or other Faith-Based Initiatives programs, and this is because what the Bush administration proposed as a major plank of legislation funded to the tune of billions ended up being a back door affair funded by mere millions.

There was, in the end, more interest in attracting the support of evangelicals than going on to justify it, especially after September 11. Plus there was a tsunami of opposition to organizations possibly discriminating on the basis of religion.

Much of this resistance was from Democrats, and it was one of the party's sadder moments. Black inner-city ministers were standing hat in hand ready to take advantage of funding to make things better in their communities, and people claiming to be speaking in their interests were evidencing a sudden obsession with the finer points of the separation of church and state.

The dismissal of the Faith-Based Initiatives idea among these people was founded partly in a visceral resistance to anything proposed by Republicans. Many of them, as secular Blue America sorts, also were ignorant of the central role that churches and religious faith play in struggling black and brown communities.

The result was people issuing sage warnings about potential discrimination who have no problem with the potential for discrimination against whites in racial preference policies. To them, if Affirmative Action means a degree of discrimination against whites, then it's tolerable collateral damage amidst a larger, nobler goal.

But if a black preacher chooses a devout Baptist as a marriage counselor over someone with no professed religious affiliation, then the moral fabric of the nation is torn asunder, regardless of the good that the church is doing for people who need help.

This resistance to the Faith-Based Intiatives was sandbox politics in the guise of sincere moral commitment, and Barack Obama is to be lauded in stepping aside from such partisan pettiness and making assistance to religious organizations, the "moral center" of his platform.

What helps people is teaching them to help themselves. Recall, for example, the old adage about teaching someone to fish rather than giving them a fish. This can be done via government funding, but the funds must go to organizations that provide counseling by trusted intimates and fellow members of a community, not faceless bureaucrats.

Here in New York, Mr. Obama gave a speech a year and half ago, not much covered by the press, in which he said that for him, a key part of changing the country would be teaching people about the power in their own hands. That's what Faith-Based Initiatives are, and that's what he's about.

Let some people assume that he's a Muslim, or that he doesn't say the Pledge of Allegiance, and so on. I would hope that the rest of us can pay attention to what matters, even when it is not easy fodder for water cooler chatter.

Original Source:



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