While there seems to be no end to the arguments about what the framers of the Constitution thought about the role of religion in public life, you argue that they were actually pretty clear in their intentions.

If the Founding Fathers had wanted to [form] a Christian nation, they’d have done it. They purposely did not want to do it. In fact, they could not possibly have been more explicit about not wanting to do it.

You don’t put a provision in the body of the Constitution saying office-holding is open to all persons without regard to a religion; you don’t write about a zeal for different religions and about religious opinions being the primary cause of factions; you don’t write about the need for a multiplicity of sects, i.e. religious pluralism, if you’re aiming for a Christian nation.

The anti-federalists, those who opposed the Constitution, many of them were much more of the mind that government office and public positions in the new national government in this republic should be open mainly, if not exclusively, to people of particular Anglo-Protestant beliefs. They lost, fortunately.

Now we know [the United States] is not a Christian nation, but by the early- to mid-20th century we have people going around saying, “Well, no, it’s meant to be a strictly secular state.” That ain’t true, either. And what I think has happened over the last 50 years plus is that the Supreme Court, under both liberal and conservative justices, has recovered the original-intentions jurisprudence, which is neither Christian nation nor secular state but really neutrality, so that whether you’re a Methodist, Muslim, Mormon, Quaker, Catholic, Jew, atheist, Wiccan, Scientologist—I’d even say whether you’re a sociologist—you’re entitled to all the rights of citizenship. Government can neither prefer nor prohibit any particular religious worldview, belief, tenet, and so on. And the end game for government is to be neutral in handling religion.


In basic terms, when you talk about federal funding for faith-based organizations, what does that mean?

You can’t proselytize with any public funds. You can’t use them to engage in any sectarian instruction at all, and you can’t use them for any type of worship services at all. You can be pervasively sectarian—your organization can be an organization with a religiously anchored mission statement, you can have people who are faith-motivated—but there is no government program or policy that says, “teach the Bible,” or “convert people to a particular faith.”

What we’re talking about then is religious nonprofits being able to participate in the government grant-making process on exactly the same basis as all other nonprofits, religious or secular, large or small, local or national. Now the secret, or the fact that was hiding in plain view in 2001 [when the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives was formed], was that we’ve been doing this for like a hundred years with Catholic charities and Jewish federations and Lutheran social services and so forth.  What we had failed to do, however, was to apply the same standards to smaller, grassroots, community-based nonprofits, which has had the effect of discriminating against mainly African American and Latino persons of faith.

These organizations have been doing a social service delivery function for years, and yet doing it without government support. Not just the bag of clothes and the soup kitchen—health screening, a third of all daycare, 40 percent of all organizations that do welfare work. They are leveraging 10, 20 times their weight in social services delivery. So my contention was, is, and remains that there is a civic stake that these sacred places should be permitted to serve civic purposes on exactly the same basis—same administrative protocol, same performance standard, same oversight. The playing field needs to be level, not tilted.


You open the book with some statements that the reader is meant to think are by George Bush but are actually quotes from Hillary Clinton. That’s one of several ways you demonstrate that there has been a general political consensus on this issue, at least philosophically. Why did it generate such controversy?

Unfortunately, what I call the orthodox sectarians and the orthodox seculars really had a field day turning what was and should have been and could have been a bipartisan effort to think of creative and innovative and constitutional ways to help the poor into a culture-war debate. That was really, to me—having studied American government and having taught American government and politics for 20 years—really, really disappointing and deeply disillusioning.


You don’t seem to think that the media helped much.

You can almost understand the elected officials and the 20,000 people running around Capitol Hill with not much else to do, which is what we have, and the 4,000 political appointees who all need to show and earn their stripes—there’s almost a pardonable polarization. But why in the world would people who are supposed to be the watchdogs and the defenders and the explainers of our democracy, why would they want to play into that hyperbole or not sift for the facts?

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