Obama Treads Fine Line on Church, State

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    (Photo: AP Images / Evan Vucci)
    President Barack Obama answers a question during his first prime time televised news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, Feb. 9, 2009.
February 11, 2009|12:20 pm

President Barack Obama, signaling early in his administration that religion belongs in the public discourse, has promised to open a big tent to voices from across the spectrum of belief without crossing boundaries separating church and state.

The Democrat's inaugural pomp was steeped in prayer, and one of his first proclamations included a shout out to "an awesome God." Last week, Obama used the platform of the National Prayer Breakfast to unveil a new-look White House Office on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships that features a team of policy advisers from both religious and secular social service circles. Most are ideological allies, but not all.

The question is whether such moves will amount to symbolic window dressing or progress finding common ground on moral issues without stepping on traditional culture-war land mines.

Analysts say the first weeks of the Obama era show there's little question that both major political parties believe religion should be a significant factor in shaping policy. That's disappointing to those on the left who advocate strict church-state separation and unconvincing to Obama's religious critics on the right who believe the president will plow ahead with a liberal agenda regardless of who is advising him.

"There's clearly not going to be any kind of dropping off the cliff in terms of the importance of faith and politics," said David Domke, a University of Washington communications professor who studies religion and politics. "There was some sense (President George W.) Bush was going to be this high water mark — or low water mark. With Obama, faith is going to have an important role, but with a much broader breadth to it."

Obama's retooling of the faith-based office, plagued in the Bush years by accusations that it was underfunded and too political, upset some Obama supporters who hoped it would go away.

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Its executive director is Joshua DuBois, a 26-year-old former Pentecostal pastor who headed religious outreach for Obama's Senate office and his presidential campaign.

"This is not a religious office or a religious administration," DuBois said in an interview. "We are going to try to find ways to work with faith-based and community organizations that are secular in nature, and don't cross the boundaries between church and state.

"We understand it is a fine line. But it's a line we're comfortable walking."

That will be tested in how the White House settles the contentious question of whether federal contracts should be awarded to religious groups that only hire members of their own faith. It's a Bush-era practice that candidate Obama signaled he would undo. The issue is to undergo a Justice Department review.

"In President Obama, you have somebody who is not only religiously knowledgeable, thoughtful, open and sensitive himself," said Rabbi David Saperstein, head of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and a critic of the Bush faith-based office. "You also have somebody who understands constitutional law, who understands the strength of our system is no establishment of religion. He's going to work hard to get this balance right."

Saperstein, a member of the new advisory board, was among scores of faith leaders who met with Obama transition team members. The 25-member advisory council is to focus on the office's four priorities: enlisting faith and community groups in economic recovery efforts, reducing abortions, encouraging responsible fatherhood and improving interfaith relations, including in the Muslim world.

Of those, the most emotionally charged is abortion reduction, a cause that emerged during the campaign as a way for Democrats to woo religious voters without compromising on abortion rights.

Obama has made one significant — and anticipated — decision on abortion. On his fourth day in office, he quietly ended a ban on U.S. funds for international groups that perform abortions or provide information on the option.

One of the advisory council's most conservative members, former Southern Baptist Convention president Frank Page, said he will continue to push for overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.

"I have to be a realist," Page said. "A lot of people like to paint everything in blank and white. The truth is, we live in a world where the reality is that abortions are, in some ways, legal. That's the way it is right now. I certainly desire to see the reduction."

Page said the advisory council is neither window dressing nor "some sort of political payback. It's a true cross-section of men and women who are being asked to share their true positions."

The board also includes an openly gay man, Fred Davie, president of a New York-based secular nonprofit called Public/Private Ventures. Davie's appointment came after gay rights groups expressed outrage over Obama's choice to deliver the inaugural invocation: influential evangelical pastor Rick Warren, who supported a November ballot measure that overturned gay marriage in California.

Davie, who holds a Yale divinity degree, said he was fine with Warren's inclusion. He said Obama also invited Davie and his partner to a private prayer service on the morning of the inauguration.

Some activists on the left might be uncomfortable with Obama's expansion of Bush's faith-based office, but Davie said many "are realistic enough to know that religion is much too integral to American life and culture, especially when it comes to poverty. The faith institutions are a great asset in that area."

On the right, a group of conservative academics have begun tracking Obama policies on abortion, marriage and other social issues through a Web site called moralaccountability.com. The idea is to compile a scorecard after a campaign in which some evangelicals and conservative Catholics backed Obama as a more effective candidate on key moral issues, said Robert George, a Princeton University politics professor.

While Obama has made clear he feels that religion deserves a place in policy-making, he also has shown a tendency to paint those who disagree with him on moral issues as divisive, George said.

"It's as if he has a position that is neutral or non-confrontational or non-ideological," George said. "The reality is we have in this country a debate on important, difficult moral questions among people of good will on both sides. To take a position is not to be divisive. It's being morally serious."

George, a Catholic who serves on the President's Council on Bioethics, created by Bush in 2001, predicted the advisory council in the faith-based office would accomplish little.

"It's good symbolic politics and will not be substantively significant," he said. "Obama's policy will be the social liberal agenda to the extent he can manage to get it through."

Several battles with religious story lines loom ahead. Obama has signaled he would overturn Bush prohibitions on embryonic stem cell research, and Supreme Court vacancies are also possible.

James Dunn, former head of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, which advocates church-state separation, said Obama is striving for an elusive middle ground as his presidency begins.

"I welcome some ambivalence," Dunn said. "Obama's ambivalence is evidence that he doesn't think everything is just right or wrong, black and white, like we've had the last eight years. He's also willing to listen. I think the challenge is, if he's willing to listen, we ought to be willing to talk."

Copyright 2008 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
 

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