President Trump: Restore the Office of Faith Based Initiatives
Today, President Donald Trump will sign an Executive Order protecting religious liberty. I thank God for this, but there’s another way he could send a strong signal of his respect for religious bodies. He could restore the near-moribund Office of Faith-Based Initiatives. His predecessor left the office on life support.
President George W. Bush created the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in 2001. He wanted it to engage churches, religious associations and faith-based philanthropic organizations as partners in caring for the poor and the needy.
Unfortunately, the office became entwined with the notion of “compassionate conservatism.” It became proof that political conservatives really cared about the poor. The effort never rose to its potential.
Why Have an Office Like that?
Why should the government even have an office like this? To put it simply, it encourages good governance.
First, good governance affirms the vital role of mediating institutions. Beginning with the family, such associations include churches, charities, and faith based associations.
Second, good government acknowledges our obligations in solidarity. We are responsible for one another. We also have a special obligation to the poor. No Christian can read the 25th chapter of the Gospel of St Matthew and deny that call to solidarity. We are one another’s neighbors. We are responsible for one another.
Third, good government respects subsidiarity. It respects the authority of institutions closer to the people. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains subsidiarity this way. More powerful institutions like the state should support less powerful but more important ones like the family. It should do so “always with a view to the common good.”
The federal government should be the last place, not the first place, to which we look. It is inefficient. It is also farthest away from the need. Does it have a role? Yes, but it must give way to smaller institutions closer to the people.
Fourth, as the Catechism explains, society needs voluntary associations and institutions. It needs lively, engaged churches, for example.
Called to society
A revived Office of Faith-Based Initiatives would encourage these four things. We need to empower governance at the smallest level first. Government shouldn’t usurp the role of mediating associations, as it loves to do. It should empower them.
But there’s one other reason the president should restore it. It’s the way the founders designed America to work.
We are, by nature and grace, called to society. We are also equipped for self-governance. The American founders understood this. Sometimes, people say “he who governs best governs least” to imply the founders opposed government. This is mistaken.
They instituted a brilliant model of bottom-up government. They recognized the role of mediating associations. The founders protected the right to free association in the Bill of Rights. They saw the churches and religious associations as part of the American polity.
The political left believes government means the federal government. The left thinks solidarity means establishing more federal programs. They have forgotten the role of mediating associations. And they hate to give Christian churches any place at all.
They embrace a top-down model of governance that threatens human freedom. It squelches initiative. It stunts creativity and impedes human flourishing. As we’ve seen in this last administration, it attacks religious belief and practice. No one is safe. Not bakers or florists, for example.
Government should protect and encourage religious groups, not threaten them. A restored Office of Faith-Based Initiatives would institutionalize this expression of the American founders’ vision.
Restore the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives
A revived Office of Faith-Based Initiatives would help to restore a respect for and recognition of the role of the churches, religious and philanthropic associations, and other mediating associations in the founders’ great vision of self-government.
This vision built the American experiment in ordered liberty. It will propel us forward, through goodness, to the greatness the president calls us to.