Obama courts conservatives with new faith program
Published: Tuesday, July 1, 2008 at 7:37 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, July 1, 2008 at 7:37 p.m.
ZANESVILLE, Ohio- Taking a page from President Bush, Democrat Barack Obama said Tuesday he wants to expand White House efforts to steer social service dollars to religious groups, risking protests in his own party with his latest aggressive reach for voters who usually vote Republican.
Obama contended he is merely stating long-held positions — surprising to some, he said, after a primary campaign in which he was "tagged as being on the left."
In recent days, with the Democratic nomination in hand and the general election battle with Republican John McCain ahead, Obama has been sounding centrist themes with comments on guns, government surveillance and capital punishment.
He's even quoted Ronald Reagan.
On Tuesday, touring Presbyterian Church-based social services facility, the Democratic senator said he would get religious charities more involved in government anti-poverty efforts if elected.
"We need an all-hands-on-deck approach," he said at Eastside Community Ministry.
The event was part of a series leading into Friday's Fourth of July holiday aimed at reassuring skeptical voters and shifting away from being stamped as part of the Democratic Party's most liberal wing.
He said the connection of religion and public service was nothing new in his personal life.
Obama showed he was comfortable using the kind of language that is familiar in evangelical churches and Bible studies by calling his faith "a personal commitment to Christ." He said that his time as a community organizer in decimated Chicago neighborhoods, supported in part by a Catholic group, brought him to a deeper faith and also convinced him that faith is useless without works.
"While I could sit in church and pray all I want, I wouldn't be fulfilling God's will unless I went out and did the Lord's work," he declared.
His talk on faith in the battleground state of Ohio came a day after a speech on patriotism in Missouri, another November election battleground. Wednesday, he travels to Colorado Springs, Colo., a hub of conservative Christian organizations, for a speech focused on service.
With 80 percent of Americans saying they identify themselves with some religion, Obama's campaign has struggled with the topic.
Comments critical of America by Obama's longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, caused a firestorm during the primaries and brought Obama's brand of faith under scrutiny because of Wright's adherence to black liberation theology. Obama also has battled false but persistent rumors that he is a Muslim; they have been kept alive on the Internet despite his repeated talk about his longtime devotion to Christianity.
Conservative Christians make up about a quarter of the electorate, and they helped put Bush in office twice. Many still are likely to oppose the Democratic nominee because of his support for abortion rights, gay rights and other issues.
An AP-Yahoo News poll in June found that people who attend church at least once a week support Republican McCain over Obama, 49 percent to 37 percent. Those who attend church less often tend to favor Obama. White evangelical Christians who attend church weekly favor McCain by huge margins.
Still, the Obama camp notes that some evangelicals feel passionately about aggressive environmental stewardship, an issue more commonly associated with Democrats. Others find appeal in Obama's message about ending messy political divisions.
Obama recently won the endorsement of the Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell, leader of a Methodist megachurch in Houston who is very close to Bush.
McCain is a mostly reliable conservative vote, but he isn't as passionate or vocal about religious conservatives as some would like. He also famously upbraided some Christian evangelical leaders as "agents of intolerance" in his first presidential campaign. He has sought to make amends since then and is continuing his outreach efforts. He met with world-renowned evangelist Billy Graham last weekend.
Obama's high-profile embrace of a key theme of Bush's time in office — the "faith-based initiative" — is just the latest example of him trying to show his centrist side.
Last week, he quoted Reagan, saying "we have to trust but verify" after Bush lifted trade sanctions against North Korea and moved to remove the country from the U.S. terrorism list.
Obama also supported new electronic surveillance rules for the government's eavesdropping program, saying "an important tool in the fight against terrorism will continue," after opposing a similar bill last year. After the Supreme Court overturned the District of Columbia's gun ban, he said he favors both an individual's right to bear firearms as well as a government's right to regulate them.
On Iraq, he has gone from hard-edged, vocal opposition to more nuanced rhetoric that calls for a phased-out troop drawdown that could last 16 months. He also disagreed with the Supreme Court decision last week that struck down a Louisiana law allowing capital punishment for people who rape children under 12.
Speaking with reporters, Obama disputed that he is altering views.
"I get tagged as being on the left and, when I simply describe what has been my position consistently, then suddenly people act surprised," he said. "But there hasn't been substantial shifts there."
While Obama would expand Bush's efforts to give religious charities more equal footing when getting federal funding, he also would tweak what he would call the President's Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in ways that divert from Bush's approach.
He would increase spending on social services, starting with a $500 million-a-year program to keep 1 million poor children up to speed on their studies over the summers. He would increase training for charities applying for funding and make it a grass-roots effort. He would elevate the program to be "a critical part of my administration," a reference to criticism that Bush paid barely more than lip service to his effort.
Obama also chose a different emphasis for why religious charities are an important answer to solving poverty and other social problems: because they better know the people who are hurting, instead of Bush's argument that religion itself is a transforming power the government must not be afraid to harness.
And while Bush supports allowing all religious groups to make any employment decisions based on faith, Obama proposes allowing religious institutions to hire and fire based on religion only in the non-taxpayer-funded portions of their activities — consistent with current federal, state and local laws. "That makes perfect sense," he said.
Where there are state or local laws prohibiting hiring choices based on sexual orientation in the federally funded portion of the programs, he said he would support those being applied.
This position would make his proposal "dead on arrival" for many evangelicals and small churches, said Jim Towey, a former head of Bush's faith-based office. That's because telling a small organization to keep employees hired with federal funds separate from others "is unmanageable — and besides those folks want to hire people who share their vision and mission," Towey said.
Even as Obama courts the right, his support for a signature Bush program could invite protest from others.
"This initiative has been a failure on all counts, and it ought to be shut down, not expanded," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
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