Is Obama Bringing Too Much Religion into the White House?

Thursday, March 5, 2009

By Liliana Segura

Now that Bush is history, one thing we can be sure of is a return to the traditional barrier dividing church and state. Right?

Not quite.

Since taking office, President Barack Obama has raised eyebrows by mixing faith and politics in a way that has dismayed some of his secular supporters.

First there was that Jesus-laden invocation by conservative Pastor Rick Warren at the inauguration. Then, an executive order that, rather than doing anything to dismantle Bush’s faith-based initiatives, bolstered them with a new "advisory council on faith." And then, last month, U.S. News and World Report published an article with the following announcement as its title: "A New Tradition for Obama's Presidential Events: Opening With a Prayer."

"In a departure from previous presidents," reported Dan Gilgoff, writing on the U.S. News blog God and Country, "(Obama's) public rallies are opening with invocations that have been commissioned and vetted by the White House."

Apparently, not even the born-again W. indulged in such practices; as U.S. administrations go, putting a presidential stamp of approval on a prayer is a new phenomenon.

"Though invocations have long been commonplace at presidential inaugurations and certain events like graduations or religious services at which presidents are guests, the practice of commissioning and vetting prayers for presidential rallies is unprecedented in modern history, according to religion-and-politics experts."

That organized religion would find a home in Obama's White House should surprise no one who followed the race for the presidency, a period that saw Obama repeatedly assert his devotion to Christianity in the face of rumors that he was actually a Muslim. But the steps the Obama administration has taken since then go far beyond the bounds of mixing faith and politics.

"If a similar thing had been done by President Bush's White House, I guarantee you there would have been a lot of people crying foul," Bill Wichterman, deputy director of the Office of Public Liaison, under George W. Bush complained to Gilgoff.

Instead, the policy seems simply to be flying under the radar, despite its implications, which are pretty significant.

"The only thing worse than having these prayers in the first place is to have them vetted, because it entangles the White House in core theological matters," Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU), told Gilgoff.

Faith-Based Initiatives 2.0

It is not the first time Lynn's organization has expressed dismay over Obama's religious initiatives. The AU Web home page currently exhorts: "Mr. President, Please Fix Your 'Faith-Based' Program!" -- a cry over Obama's creation of an "advisory council on faith" last month.

The Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships was founded via executive order on Feb. 5 to be a new office of the executive branch. According to the order, the council "shall be composed of not more than 25 members appointed by the president from among individuals who are not officers or employees of the federal government." They will serve one-year terms "and serve at the pleasure of the president."

Heading up the office is Josh DuBois, the 26-year-old former pastor who advised Obama during the campaign. It was DuBois who reportedly campaigned heavily for the controversial decision to have Warren deliver the inaugural invocation, a move that angered many defenders of gay rights. (That said, the advisory council also includes Fred Davie, the openly gay president of the New York nonprofit Public/Private Ventures.)

In fairness, just as Obama was open about his plan to keep intact Bush's faith-based initiatives, he also made no secret of his plan to create such an office. As a candidate, he stated that he would expand the number of religious organizations eligible for federal funding. In a speech delivered on the campaign trail in Ohio last summer, Obama criticized the faith-based initiatives under Bush as "used to promote partisan interests," pledging that his would be different.

"I still believe it's a good idea to have a partnership between the White House and grassroots groups, both faith-based and secular," Obama said. "But it has to be a real partnership -- not a photo-op. That's what it will be when I'm president. I'll establish a new Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The new name will reflect a new commitment. This council will not just be another name on the White House organization chart -- it will be a critical part of my administration."

Strange Bedfellows

Obama's executive order came the same day as the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual event held in the ballroom of the Washington Hilton (and whose keynote speakers have ranged from politicians to the likes of Bono and Mother Teresa). The event itself occupies a pretty strange space between religion and politics, particularly as it is organized by the shadowy organization known as The Family, an "international network of evangelical activists in government, military and business" as described by journalist Jeff Sharlet, author of The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power.

According to Sharlet, "The Family is dedicated to this idea that Christianity has gotten it all wrong for 2,000 years by focusing on the poor, the suffering and the weak. … The Family says that instead, what Christians should do is minister to the up-and-out -- as opposed to the down-and-out -- to those that are already powerful. Because if they can win those people for Christ, they win the whole deal."

This would seem to conflict with the brand of Christianity Obama has adopted, which he described at the National Prayer Breakfast as being motivated by his work as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago. "It was on those streets, in those neighborhoods, that I first heard God's spirit beckon me," Obama told his audience. "It was there that I felt called to a higher purpose -- His purpose."

Indeed, Obama's executive order focuses largely on the work done by churches and religious institutions in under-resourced communities. "The goal of this office will not be to favor one religious group over another -- or even religious groups over secular groups," he told the audience. "It will simply be to work on behalf of those organizations that want to work on behalf of our communities and to do so without blurring the line that our founders wisely drew between church and state."

However well-intentioned it sounded, the American Civil Liberties Union was quick to voice its alarm over the president's order, pointing out that the mission of the religious advisory council will also be "to advise the president and the White House faith-based office on how to distribute federal dollars, and also advise on a range of other issues, such as AIDS and women's reproductive health care" -- areas where religious views present nothing if not a conflict of interest.

"Although former President George W. Bush gave prominence to his faith-based initiative and informally consulted with individual religious leaders, even he never formed a government advisory committee made up primarily of clergy," read a Feb. 5 ACLU press release. Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, described Obama as "heading into uncharted and dangerous waters."

"There is no historical precedent for presidential meddling in religion -- or religious leaders meddling in federal policy -- through a formal government advisory committee made up mostly of the president's chosen religious leaders," she said.

The Wrong Debate?

Many people who celebrate Obama's overhaul of Bush's faith-based initiatives are doing so based on his promise that his administration will cut off funding for groups that discriminate based on background or sexual orientation. But as Americans United for Separation of Church and State points out,the order he signed "leaves the entire architecture of the Bush Faith-Based Initiative intact -- every rule, every regulation, every executive order." Groups that apply for aid will be vetted by the Department of Justice on a case-by-case basis. Along with the promised expansion of groups eligible for aid, this will make such a promise difficult to enforce.

Given how rapidly the notion of "faith-based initiatives" has evolved, some ask whether we shouldn't be scrapping them altogether instead of trying to expand and improve on them. In a New York Times op-ed last week, Susan Jacoby, author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, called it "truly dismaying" that "amid all the discussion about President Obama’s version of faith-based community initiatives, there has been such a widespread reluctance to question the basic assumption that government can spend money on religiously based enterprises without violating the First Amendment. ... This shows how easy it is to institutionalize a bad idea based on unexamined assumptions about service to a greater good."

"We are moving blindly ahead with faith-based federal spending as if it were not a radical break with our past," Jacoby warned. "If faith-based initiatives, first institutionalized by the executive fiat of a conservative Republican president, become even more entrenched under a liberal Democratic administration, there will be no going back."


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