July 2, 2008
Obama Seeks Bigger Role for Religious Groups
ZANESVILLE, Ohio — Senator Barack Obama said Tuesday that if elected president he would expand the delivery of social services through churches and other religious organizations, vowing to achieve a goal he said President Bush had fallen short on during his two terms.
“The challenges we face today — from saving our planet to ending poverty — are simply too big for government to solve alone,” Mr. Obama said outside a community center here. “We need an all-hands-on-deck approach.”
Some Democrats have previously backed similar efforts, but Mr. Bush’s version, a centerpiece of his first-term agenda, has been a lightning rod for criticism from those concerned about the separation of church and state and those who argued that Mr. Bush had used it to further a conservative political agenda.
In embracing the same general approach as Mr. Bush, Mr. Obama ran the political risk of alienating those of his supporters who would prefer that government keep its distance from religion.
But Mr. Obama’s plan pointedly departed from the Bush administration’s stance on one fundamental issue: whether religious organizations that get federal money for social services can take faith into account in their hiring. Mr. Bush has said yes. Mr. Obama said no.
“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,” Mr. Obama said. “Federal dollars that go directly to churches, temples and mosques can only be used on secular programs.”
Mr. Obama’s position that religious organizations would not be able to consider religion in their hiring for such programs would constitute a deal-breaker for many evangelicals, said several evangelical leaders, who represent a political constituency Mr. Obama has been trying to court.
“For those of who us who believe in protecting the integrity of our religious institutions, this is a fundamental right,” said Richard Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals. “He’s rolling back the Bush protections. That’s extremely disappointing.”
Early in his first term, Mr. Bush issued executive orders expressly allowing religion-based groups receiving federal money to consider religion in their employment decisions, although confusion often remains in this area because of conflicting federal, state and local laws.
Martha Minnow, a professor of law at Harvard University who has written about religion-based initiatives and has advised the Obama campaign on the issue, said Mr. Obama would move to “return the law to what it was before the current administration,” in other words barring the consideration of religion in hiring decisions for such programs that receive federal financing.
“I don’t think there’s anything too controversial about that,” said. “Any religious organization that does not want to comply with that requirement simply doesn’t have to take the money.”
But evangelical leaders said not allowing religious groups to hire based on their beliefs would strip them of the very basis for religion-based programs.
“If you can’t hire people within your faith community, then you’ve lost the distinctive that is the reason why faith-based programs exist in the first place,” said Richard Land, head of the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention.
The idea of augmenting government delivery of social services through community and religious organizations has won varying degrees of support across the ideological spectrum. Although research on the effectiveness of religion-based organizations remains spotty, Mr. Obama said groups would be regularly evaluated on effectiveness.
Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, who has struggled to overcome wariness from some evangelicals, has stepped up his outreach to evangelicals and is a proponent of religion-based initiatives as well. A McCain campaign spokesman, Brian Rogers, said Mr. McCain “disagrees with Senator Obama that hiring at faith-based groups should be subject to government oversight.”
Mr. Obama’s plan — his campaign said it would be the “moral center” of his administration — was unfurled against a backdrop freighted with electoral ramifications. Mr. Obama is signaling that he wants to make a push among white evangelical Protestants.
By focusing on centrist and more liberal evangelicals, who have been pushing the movement to broaden its agenda beyond traditional social issues, Mr. Obama is hoping to chip away at a margin that has favored Republicans. His campaign selected Ohio to announce the plan, a state where Mr. Bush engaged in a sprawling voter turnout effort among evangelicals.
Mr. Obama’s proposal was met with praise from leaders like the Rev. Jim Wallis, a prominent spokesman for more liberal evangelicals. Mr. Wallis applauded the fact that Mr. Obama, as a Democrat, was willing to talk about his Christian faith and “wants a faith-based program that’s even better than the Bush program.”
Several former Bush administration officials who had a hand in shaping the current policy, including John J. DiIulio Jr., director of Mr. Bush’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in 2001, also applauded Mr. Obama’s proposal. Though the program is widely associated with Mr. Bush, similar ideas have been supported by Democrats.
“His plan reminds me of much that was best in both then-Vice President Al Gore’s and then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush’s respective first speeches on the subject in 1999,” Mr. DiIulio said.
But the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, criticized Mr. Obama’s support of a program that Mr. Lynn said had undermined civil liberties and civil rights. “I am disappointed that any presidential candidate would want to continue a failed policy of the Bush administration,” Mr. Lynn said. “It ought to be shut down, not continued.”
In one example of how he would use the approach to carry out a policy goal, Mr. Obama proposed $500 million per year to provide summer education for one million poor children, with a goal of closing the achievement gaps between wealthy students and poorer ones. The campaign did not provide a cost proposal for the full program, but said the educational piece could be financed by reducing the growth in the federal travel budget and streamlining the management of surplus government property.
If elected, Mr. Obama said, he would call for a pre-inauguration review of all executive orders pertaining to the religion-based program, particularly those dealing with hiring. The program would “be central to our White House mission,” he said, and would consider elevating the director of his Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships to a cabinet-level post.
As he announced his proposal on Tuesday, standing outside the Eastside Community Ministry in Zanesville, Mr. Obama harked back to his early days as a community organizer in Chicago, where Roman Catholic charities financed his programs.
David Kuo, who was deputy director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives under Mr. Bush but eventually grew disenchanted and left, said the Obama plan seemed to address some of the shortcomings with the Bush administration’s efforts, making, for example, religion-based initiatives part of the domestic policy structure.
Mr. Kuo, who has criticized the Bush effort as getting bogged down in partisan politics, was asked by the Obama campaign to review its proposal.
“I think it is a bold, smart, engaging attempt to use religious organizations to help the poor and to do for the faith community what the Bush administration could not,” Mr. Kuo said. “But I’m concerned that his position on hiring rights will bog down this initiative just like Bush’s position on the other side did the same thing.”
Jeff Zeleny reported from Zanesville, and Michael Luo from New York.