At their May 3 debate, 10 GOP presidential hopefuls were asked, “Is there anyone on the stage who does not … believe in evolution?”  Three of them—Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, and Representative Tom Tancredo of Colorado—raised their hands.*

This is perhaps not as dramatic as the outcome of the Scopes “monkey” trial, but it should give us pause—seven years since the beginning of the third millennium of the Christian Era, ten billion confirmations of the theory of natural selection since the death of Darwin.

There’s always been a fuzzy line between the religious and public domains in this country.  Although many public figures are clearly animated by their religious beliefs, when do their actions as elected or appointed officials begin to encroach on the Establishment Clause of the Constitution?

The White House’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives is an interesting case for those of who work in the nonprofit sector.  Some prominent critics have denounced it as a handout to supporters of the current administration and others have decried the “snoring indifference” of the Bush White House to faith-based groups.  The Chronicle of Philanthropy recently reported on the activities of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, an organization that brought suit against the Office in 2004.

I’m of two minds on the issue.

On the one hand, some of our most effective nonprofit organizations are faith-based, among them the American Friends Service Committee, the Salvation Army, the Jewish Social Service Agency, and many others.  Smaller faith-based organizations have developed effective social ministries that reach out to underserved populations like returning prisoners, and provide critical services to low-income communities.  These organizations clearly deserve our support.

On the other hand, there are good reasons for proceeding with caution.  Many faith-based social ministries do quite well with the support they receive from their faith communities.  They feel no special calling to expand or extend what they do, so why upset the apple cart, substituting federal funds for individual charitable dollars?

As a secular funder, I might simply wince if a grantee starts the day with a “voluntary” prayer that ends, “In Christ’s name, Amen,” and I might withhold from commenting if the program otherwise excludes such things as Bible studies and prayer circles.  But when does a faith-based organization cross the line?

Despite my strong opposition to proselytizing, I worry that some marginalized populations would never be served were it not for the outreach of faith-based groups.  Unfortunately, calling for stronger publicly-funded and publicly-administered social services sounds like an anachronism in these nefarious, government-hating times.

* What’s perhaps more disturbing is the fact that compared with the American public, these candidates are somewhat ahead of the curve.  According to an August 2005 poll by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 42 percent of all adults believe that human beings and other living things have always existed in their present form.  We did not evolve, according to this view.  In fact, only 26 percent of those polled believed that life evolved through natural selection.

imageAlbert Ruesga blogs on civil society and its discontents at White Courtesy Telephone.