At Doug Kmiec's Swearing-In, Strange Religious/Political Bedfellows

As the former Reagan aide became ambassador to Malta, Martin Sheen and Sam Alito were on hand.

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By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country

Imagine a Washington event that opens with Martin Sheen—aka The West Wing's Josiah Bartlett—reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Though a Democrat occupies the White House, the event is a swearing-in for a former highly placed aide to President Reagan who has been plucked for an ambassador's post. The ambassador-to-be is introduced by Joshua DuBois, a Pentecostal minister whom the Democratic president has picked to run the White House's faith-based office.

The Obama administration's faith outreach operation can make for some pretty bizarre scenes.

The event was yesterday's swearing-in of Douglas Kmiec, who led Reagan's Office of Legal Counsel but managed to become Barack Obama's highest-profile Roman Catholic surrogate on the campaign trail last year, as the new ambassador to Malta. It felt like an official diocesan event with a twist.

The president of Catholic University of America, the Rev. David M. O'Connell, gave the opening prayer. "We still think of you as one of us," Father O'Connell told Kmiec, a former dean of Catholic University's law school. With some conservative Catholics having called Kmiec's religious bona fides into question for having endorsed Obama—he was denied Communion last year—the remark carried poignancy.

Sheen, a fellow parishioner of Kmiec's at Our Lady of Malibu Catholic Church in Southern California, led the Pledge of Allegiance, ending it in an unusual way, with an emphatic "amen." Someone in the audience whispered, "Martin went to Catholic school."

Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, a friend of Kmiec's from their time together in Reagan's Justice Department, approached the podium to deliver the oath. "We're missing an important book," Kmiec deadpanned, and a State Department aide ran to fetch a Bible.

Kmiec was formally introduced by DuBois. DuBois spoke of Obama's election last year as an instance of one of the three theological virtues, hope, at work. He said Kmiec exhibited another of those virtues, faith, calling him "a fellow worker in the vineyard of interfaith understanding."

When it was his turn to speak, Kmiec told of a phone call he'd received last year from DuBois—then serving as candidate Obama's faith outreach director—on the day he came out for Obama in an article for Slate. "Are you for real?" DuBois had asked.

"I've heard a lot of that" since endorsing Obama, Kmiec said.

"[Dubois] welcomed me to the fold despite my previous suspect life," he continued. By way of a contrast, he took a thinly veiled swipe at the opposition that President Obama's May appearance at the University of Notre Dame generated among conservative Catholics. "We live at a time," Kmiec said, "when even at some great universities, a spirit of narrow-mindedness sets in over a spirit of inquiry."

Kmiec had some kind words for Malta, a tiny island nation in the Mediterranean Sea, before a receiving line formed to wish the new ambassador well. Liberal religious types from Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne to evangelical activist Jim Wallis, who had long urged the Democratic Party to reach out to religious folks—even conservatives—lined up to shake hands with Kmiec.

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