Welcome to Morris, Oklahoma, population 1,319, most of whom live in the same square mile. It's the kind of town where the locals tell highway travelers, "Don't blink -- you'll miss it."
You can be forgiven for having never heard of this place, as even most Oklahomans haven't heard of it. It's what I call a "tornado radar town" because it's one of those towns I only see on the Doppler radar broadcasts during a tornado watch.
As you drive through this town along highway 62 -- possibly on the way from Okmulgee to Muskogee -- you pull your car to a stop the town's only traffic light, which hangs from a wire at the intersection of the other highway that makes up Morris' "main drag."
The only evidence of the presence of government that you can see is the public school and the post office. There's a bank too, with an ATM whose installation warranted a story in the town newsletter. And there are seemingly dozens of churches.
The signs welcome you -- a Christian church, a Baptist church, a United Methodist church, a Pentecostal church, another Baptist church, an Assembly of God church, a Church of Christ church, and yet another Baptist church.
The median income in Morris is less than $30,000 a year -- about $18,000 less than the national average. This isn't to say its people are poor. They aren't any worse off than anyone else in another of Oklahoma's small towns. They have suffered no recent natural disasters, and no big manufacturing plants or factories have packed up and left because there were none around to begin with.
No, Morris, OK is an unassuming, thoroughly average place that is not remarkable at all among the tens of thousands of tiny towns that dot the pages of road atlases stowed in the glove boxes of American drivers. Most people have visited a place like it, and a good amount of people still call them home.
But see, the difference is this. When someone in Morris, OK has a problem that they can't fix themselves -- a bankruptcy, a car accident, a house fire, a struggle with alcoholism, an illness in the family that prevents someone from earning and working -- help is further away for them than it is for many others.
Not only do many people fall through the cracks by making just a little too much money to qualify for aide programs, but in small places like Morris, the near-total lack of government presence means that help is a distant thing.
What is much closer is those churches I mentioned earlier. Not only are they physically closer, but they are filled with people that you know if you're from there. They're neighbors. And when you have a problem that you can't fix yourself, sometimes help from someone who knows your situation is easier to accept than help from a government entity.
And from the perspective of government, it would use up a lot less taxpayer resources to fund an outreach program at one of those churches than it would be to come to Morris, OK and build one. It's a more efficient use of taxpayer money to use a system that is already in place -- those churches.
In an interview with "Christianity Today" magazine, Obama criticised the way George W. Bush ran his Office of Faith-Based Initiatives:
"There's always a danger in those situations that money is being allocating based on politics, as opposed to merit and substance. That doesn't just compromise government. More importantly, it compromises potentially our religious institutions."
In short, if a place of worship has a worthy program, then under Obama's plan they should be eligible for federal assistance related to that program whether they are Anglicans or Zoroastrians.
It's not an election-year pander. It's not "reaching out to evangelicals." It's something that Barack Obama has talked about doing for a long time, mentioning it in his book, "The Audacity of Hope."
In April 13, 2008's "Compassion Forum," Obama had this to say about faith-based initiatives:
"I want to keep the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives open, but I want to make sure that its mission is clear. It's not to -- it's not to simply build a particular faith community, the faith-based initiatives should be targeted specifically at the issue of poverty and how to lift people up."
"And partnering with faith communities, I think we can achieve that as long as it's within the requirements of our Constitution. We make sure that it's open to everybody. It's not simply the federal government funding certain groups to be able to evangelize."
Jim Wallis, an activist, blogger and author of "The Great Awakening" once worked for George W. Bush's Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, eventually cutting his ties with the administration over the Iraq War. He writes, "Obama's proposals also contain necessary protections for religious liberty, pluralism, and constitutional safeguards."
In a July 1 speech in Zainesville, Ohio, Obama provided a short history of faith-based programs:
"What I'm saying is that we all have to work together - Christian and Jew, Hindu and Muslim; believer and non-believer alike - to meet the challenges of the 21st century."
"Now, I know there are some who bristle at the notion that faith has a place in the public square. But the fact is, leaders in both parties have recognized the value of a partnership between the White House and faith-based groups."
"President Clinton signed legislation that opened the door for faith-based groups to play a role in a number of areas, including helping people move from welfare to work."
"Al Gore proposed a partnership between Washington and faith-based groups to provide more support for the least of these."
"And President Bush came into office with a promise to 'rally the armies of compassion,' establishing a new Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. But what we saw instead was that the Office never fulfilled its promise."
Obama realizes that, under Bush, Faith-Based Initiatives were misused for partisan purposes. Instead of being a "photo-op" program, Obama said, his Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships will be "a critical part" of the Obama administration.
In the same speech, Obama described how his program would guard against abuses and waste:
"Now, make no mistake, as someone who used to teach constitutional law, I believe deeply in the separation of church and state, but I don't believe this partnership will endanger that idea - so long as we follow a few basic principles."
"First, if you get a federal grant, you can't use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can't discriminate against them - or against the people you hire - on the basis of their religion."
"Second, federal dollars that go directly to churches, temples, and mosques can only be used on secular programs. And we'll also ensure that taxpayer dollars only go to those programs that actually work."
NOTE: This is contrary to some Associated Press reports yesterday that claimed Obama's plan would allow religious groups to discriminate on the grounds of a person's faith. These reports were and are, completely false.
I myself, and my family as well, have relied upon the help of religious charities at several points in our lives -- including once quite recently. A charity called Angel Food Ministries, which ships inexpensive grocery items to churches around the country, helped us support ourselves during some difficult times.
Now that we have a baby, a local church is helping us with child care as my wife works. And of course, the string of apartments and rent houses we lived in during and after college would have been bare of furniture without the Salvation Army.
My family has worked on the other end of charity as well, when my Dad donated his time as a doctor to a church-run free clinic. He helped people who, for whatever reason, lacked access to health care -- people who were poor, disabled, elderly, and all of the above.
None of this is life-or-death stuff. It just made things easier on us when we wouldn't have otherwise had help made available to us. When we made about $300 too much every month to qualify for food stamps, a church program was there -- they didn't ask any nosy questions and they didn't try to drag us into a church service.
I know the relationship between religious people and the Democratic Party isn't always as harmonious as it could be. But here on Daily Kos, you'll meet liberals who are faithful, and who love to give and help people who need it.
I realize that many churches can be havens for intolerance and inflammatory political rhetoric, but these kinds of churches usually aren't the ones with outstanding charity programs that help non-churchgoers.
Helping people who need help is what the Democratic Party is all about. Need knows no religious denomination or political affiliation -- it can strike any one of us. It can even strike those of us who live in places where government assistance isn't easy to come by.
That is why I support the idea of helping religious institutions serve people who need that help -- without judgment, without strings attached, and without religious harassment or proselytization. And if a church doesn't feel like it can abide by these rules, then they would either not apply for funding or lose their funding after breaking them.
And of course this isn't an either-or proposition. We can also repair and bolster our country's secular charities and rebuild the federal aide programs that have languished under years of Republican rule. But in some areas of the country, it's more practical and less expensive to work through religious institutions.
There will always be abuses in any large system. We can't expect that Obama's revamped Office of Faith-Based Initiatives will be perfect. But what it does have is the potential to help a lot of people who might not otherwise find the assistance they need -- while at the same time keeping an eye on the potential for abuses within the system.
There are tens of thousands of places like Morris, Oklahoma, and millions of people who fall into the cracks of our federal aide programs. A revamped and reimagined Office of Faith-Based Initiatives could be one way to reach more of them. It's a bottom-up approach that can and will work.