- (Photo: AP Images / Gerald Herbert)
Conservative evangelical and Catholic leaders who went out on a political limb by aligning themselves with the Obama administration are expressing feelings ranging from disappointment to optimism in their reaction to the president's decisions so far on culture war issues.
Although most of President Barack Obama's moves on abortion and stem cell research have been expected, some right-leaning Christian leaders who took a risk sitting down at the table with a Democratic president feel that several major decisions fall short of the common ground Obama had promised on divisive social issues.
Obama's reversal this week of Bush-era restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research is the latest example.
"Thus far, I have been disappointed to see little give. There's been a lot of take," said the Rev. Frank Page, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention who serves on a month-old advisory board to Obama's White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. "I've seen little give in the area of relating to the evangelical community as far as life issues."
Others point out that Obama is, after all, a Democrat and supporter of keeping abortion legal - and he has promised to proceed with caution on stem cells.
Obama "is not doing anything he hasn't said he was going to do during the campaign," said the Rev. Joel Hunter, an evangelical megachurch pastor from Orlando, Fla., and another advisory board member. "So I am not enthusiastic, but I'm not disappointed, because we knew what to expect. I'm encouraged he is not totally flipping to the other side. We've got to be patient here."
One of the four main priorities of Obama's faith-based office is to find ways to reduce the abortion rate, an attempt at common ground. But shortly after taking office, Obama lifted restrictions on federal funding of international family planning groups that perform abortions or provide information about the procedure.
Then in late February, the administration said it would rescind broad protections put in place in the waning days of the Bush administration for health workers who refuse to provide care they find objectionable on personal, moral or religious grounds. Conservative Christian groups cried foul.
The White House has said the administration was committed to protecting the rights of health care workers who don't want to perform abortions, but was concerned the Bush language went too far and could restrict services such as family planning and infertility treatments.
Obama's nomination of Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Catholic who supports abortion rights in conflict with church teachings, for health and human services secretary also has stirred the old culture war divisions.
But Page credited the White House for listening. He said an administration official reassured him that Obama would never force a health care provider to perform abortions against his or her conscience - easing Page's concerns about the so-called conscience clause.
"So, on that hand, I think they are listening and trying to seek some common ground," Page said. "But basically it seems like the more left-wing Democratic agenda is being followed."
On embryonic stem cell research, which involves the destruction of human embryos, many questions remained. President George W. Bush limited federally funded research to stem-cell lines that had already been created by August 2001, when he issued the order. Obama lifted that restriction and directed the National Institutes of Health to propose new guidelines, emphasizing that research should be done "responsibly."
If Congress were to take a step further and reverse legislation that bans federal money from being used to create or destroy human embryos for research, "then we're going back into the culture wars," Hunter said.
Douglas Kmiec, a Pepperdine University law professor, Catholic opponent of abortion and former Reagan administration lawyer who became a lightning rod in the Catholic community for endorsing Obama, said he was encouraged by the administration's first seven weeks.
He cited the abortion reduction goal, provisions in the stimulus package to help the poor and Senate approval of an expansion of State Children's Health Insurance Program, which Catholics on the left have promoted as a way to improve socio-economic conditions and reduce abortion rates.
"As far as the expectations I had for a president who is a pro-choice president and did not share my pro-life views, President Obama has been honest about what he intended to do and has done those things," Kmiec said. "He has been honest, we've been honest about our disagreements, and the conversation continues."
Joshua DuBois, director of the faith-based office, said in a statement that "we have ... begun to work with key leaders on tough issues in hopes of finding common ground," and added that the work would continue.
Some Christian leaders invited to the Democratic table during the campaign made clear they would challenge Obama if necessary. At an interfaith service opening the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Bishop Charles E. Blake drew attention for chiding those who show "disregard for the lives of the unborn."
Blake, presiding bishop of the 6 million-member Church of God in Christ, a predominantly black Pentecostal denomination, also challenged Obama to adopt policies to reduce abortions.
"I can only believe he is going to keep that commitment," Blake said this week of Obama's promise to enact such policies. "There might have been some political motivation that caused him to take the early positions he has taken. But I think he will be just as aggressive and consistent in pursuing policies that will make abortions less necessary."
Cameron Strang, editor of Relevant Magazine, which is geared toward younger evangelicals the Obama campaign worked to target, said Obama has "done what he said he'd do."
He said he was impressed "that they are continuing the dialogue," adding that he felt "there's an opportunity for Christians to be optimistic they will continue to have a place at the table during this administration."
For others, Obama's actions on stem cells, abortion and the conscience clause represent an "extreme shift toward the left," said the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, an evangelical group.
"I like our president. I pray for our president. I want our president to succeed," said Rodriguez, who took part in Obama transition team conference calls. "But we need our president to really govern from the center and not from the extremes."
But Hunter, the Orlando pastor, called for patience.
"I think it's premature to make a judgment," Hunter said. "The president in most cases is taking a wise and cautious course. I think a lot of people are just shooting warning shots across the bow right now."