Obama Is Making Centrist Evangelicals Antsy

Evangelicals for Human Rights President David Gushee calls the president out on abortion.

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By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country

Evangelical progressive leaders are getting antsy. Yes, Barack Obama won many of them over during his presidential campaign. But the White House Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, which includes a handful of evangelical voices, is still waiting for Obama aides to begin convening official calls for the group. So far, its members have been convening their own ad hoc calls, waiting for the administration to catch up.

As of last week, the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships was staffed by just two people: Executive Director Joshua DuBois and his assistant. That's another disappointment to evangelical centrists who want to start partnering with the office on its expanded mission under Obama, which includes abortion reduction.

And the administration's moves so far on hot-button cultural issues like abortion and embryonic stem cell research have differed from the traditionally liberal Democratic position only insofar as rhetoric is concerned. Yes, the president declined to rescind the Mexico City Policy—which prevents federal dollars from going to family planning groups abroad that provide or endorse abortion—on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade to avoid insulting antiabortion groups. But he reversed the policy the very next day.

Yes, the White House worked with progressive Catholic groups and reached out to centrist evangelicals in promoting the nomination of Kathleen Sebelius to lead the Department of Health and Human Services. But the fact remains that Sebelius vetoed lots of antiabortion legislation as the governor of Kansas.

Yes, the president spoke about his personal faith to explain his decision to lift restrictions on federally funded embryonic stem cell research. But Obama also left the door open to federal funds going to create human embryos for research, a move that surprised even many embryonic stem cell research proponents.

Last week, Politico tried to show how these moves had triggered a reassessment of Obama from previously favorable conservative Christians. But the piece came up with only one example, the Rev. Joel Hunter. This morning's USA Today provides a second, with influential evangelical centrist David Gushee offering an enough-is-enough op-ed:

Mexico City, conscience clause, Sebelius, embryonic stem cells. In each case, I have been asked by friends at Democratic or progressive-leaning think tanks not just to refrain from opposing these moves, but instead to support them in the name of a broader understanding of what it means to be pro-life. I mainly refused.

But I do confess that my desire to retain good relationships with the Obama team has tempted me to give what was asked in return for the big payoff of a serious abortion-reduction initiative that I could wholeheartedly support.

But this kind of calculation is precisely what has gotten Christian political activists in trouble in the past, not just for 40 years but for 1,600 years. We gain access to Caesar in order to affect policy; we hold onto access even if it involves compromising some of what we want in policy; in the end, we can easily forget what policies we were after in the first place. I think this definitely happened to the Christian right. It doesn't need to be repeated by the Christian center or left.

...Christian conscience requires me to make this case even if it has no chance of prevailing in American society. And if we lose on abortion, as it appears we will lose for a long time to come, Christian conscience requires me to ask the government not to require citizens to pay for procuring services that violate their sacred beliefs.

...President Obama, we need more than lip service on these crucial issues. Bring the transformational change your promises led us to hope for.

With just two months in office, you can argue that the Obama administration simply needs more time to start acting in earnest on abortion reduction and on some of its other faith-based policy plans. But if centrist evangelicals keep speaking out against the administration, the White House has a big political problem on its hands.