“Did you accomplish anything this week?” That question, posed to me every weekend by one or more people, raced through my head repeatedly as I spent most of Tuesday in a meeting in an office of the White House. Often the answer to that query is “yes.” Tuesday’s response was “Yes, taking one small step.” However, that small step involved far more than a single day. It required an investment of focused attention, persistent action, research, commentary, and advocacy that stretched from 1999 to the present moment. And still more steps are required.
About a year ago I was asked to serve on President Obama’s Task Force on Reform of the Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The assignment of the task force was to recommend steps for bringing that office more in line with the Constitution.
I had opposed the establishment of such an office since 1999 when presidential candidates in both major political parties voiced support for allowing government funds to flow into religious organizations to support faith-based social ministries. This new initiative within the executive branch of our government posed an unprecedented threat to our nation’s fidelity to the religious freedom clauses in the First Amendment of the Constitution.
The Obama Administration knew they were inviting a critic on to this task force. Indeed, U.S. News and World Report carried a story on my acceptance of the invitation on its blog. Immediately after the presidential election I had met with the Obama Transition Team to request that they abolish the faith-based office in the White House.
Today the recommendations of our task force are being presented to cabinet members and other leaders in the Administration who will engage the president in conversations about the issues we have raised. Getting to this moment took time. Members of the task force are incredibly diverse–racially, politically, professionally, religiously, economically, and ideologically. Some members wanted a relaxation of emphasis on church-state separation while others, like me, were interested in strengthening the constitutional guarantees that have saved our nation from an entanglement of religion and government that has caused problems in other nations.
Our recommendations span several concerns—transparency, public postings of recipients of government money and for what purposes, attentiveness to religious freedom issues, and more. From the first time we met, however, one question had loomed larger than all of the rest—whether or not to mandate or only suggest that religious recipients of government funds form a separate legal entity into which to receive that money in order to protect the integrity of the religious organization and prevent a merger of taxpayers’ money and tithes and contributions from offering plates. For a year, the debate went on—passionate but civil. In the end, the vote on the recommendation endorsed the mandatory position—by a majority of one. Such is the divide on the meaning of religious freedom in our nation as well.
As I sat in a White House office, I wonder if all of the time and work were worth it to assure such a small step, to win what some would consider a minimal victory for religious liberty. Yes is the answer that resounds inside me. The fate of the big issues in our time are decided by hundreds of small steps taken, minor victories won, and the Constitution defended word by word one issue at a time. At least for this moment, a slide toward government-subsidized religion has been stopped.
This small step, this minor victory, likely will go virtually unnoticed. But, without it, the news would be big—journalists reporting a sea-change, a major shift, in which legal and religious leaders endorsed a position contrary to the United States Constitution. So goes the work of a lifetime—tracked one step at a time.