Humanist Perspectives: White House Errs with “Interfaith Service Challenge”


This post is part of our Humanist Perspectives series. In this series, we invite guest contributors to explore active humanism and what it means to be a thoughtful, engaged member of society. As a counterpoint to recent voices in this series, Free Inquiry editor Tom Flynn offers his thoughts on why secularists should not engage in interfaith work. Please share your thoughts in the comments!

White House Errs with “Interfaith Service Challenge”
By Tom Flynn

In March, the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships announced the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge. This initiative encourages colleges and universities to design one-year service projects on which students and student groups of every faith perspective—and none—can collaborate. The White House announcement notes that “since his inauguration, President Obama has emphasized interfaith cooperation and community service,” then blends the two into something called “interfaith service.”

That’s one bold stroke of hybridization.

As The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart likes to observe, when you bring two things together, sometimes you get peanut butter and jelly, and sometimes you get Baconnaise. The White House announcement veered far into Baconnaise territory when it declared: “Interfaith service involves people from different religious and non-religious backgrounds tackling community challenges together—for example, Protestants and Catholics, Hindus and Jews, and Muslims and non-believers—building a Habitat for Humanity house together.”

That shout-out to nonbelievers is no fluke—Campus Challenge materials are relentlessly inclusive toward the nonreligious. At first glance, this may seem hugely positive: the Obama administration is delivering on its promise of fairness toward Americans of all faiths and none. On that basis, some of my religious humanist friends are (pardon the expression) rapturous about this project. “Nonreligious Must Embrace White House’s Interfaith Service Challenge,” runs the headline of Harvard University humanist chaplain Greg Epstein’s March 18 blog post at

I won’t be joining in the cheering for this initiative. I think secular people and organizations ought to steer clear of the Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge and be unyielding in their criticism of it. Why?

First, it comes from the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, the current iteration of George W. Bush’s “Faith-Based Initiative,” which longtime readers will recall as a full-frontal assault on the separation of church and state. In the view of most expert secularists, the very existence of this office is probably unconstitutional—though in the present climate, it’s unlikely that any court will declare it so. If you’re a strict separationist, the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships is one of those quarters from which, presumptively, no good can come.

Read the whole article here.