Obama Works to Redefine Role of Faith in First 100 Days

The president tries to win over some religious conservatives while keeping secular liberals on board.

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The Southern Baptist Convention's Richard Land has worked with presidential administrations going back to Ronald Reagan's, but he can't remember any that has convened an advisory council composedised mostly of religious leaders, as President Obama has done. The council gives religion "an institutionally higher profile than under President Bush," says the conservative Land, who directs public policy for the nation's largest evangelical denomination. "No president that I've dealt with has had anything like it."

Left-leaning advocacy groups agree, though they tend to be more troubled by a bigger role for religion in the White House. Americans United for Separation of Church and State, for example, is dismayed by how Obama's faith-based office has operated so far. "Bush's office completely disregarded the separation of church and state," says Executive Director Barry Lynn, "and nobody sees any change from that yet."

In his first 100 days in office, President Obama has sought a bold new role for faith in the White House, which aides say is aimed largely at dialing down the decades-old culture wars. Without changing his party's liberal stances on social issues like abortion, for example, Obama is nonetheless attempting to reach out to religious conservatives by pledging to work toward reducing demand for abortion. And while acknowledging his party's own secular base—he went out of his way to mention nonbelievers in his inaugural address—Obama has sought to showcase religion's expanded role in his White House, opening his rallies with public prayer.

So far, the project has blunted the Christian right's usual criticism of Democratic administrations, even earning plaudits from some high-profile religious conservatives. But it has also alienated some traditionally Democratic constituencies, from advocates for strict church-state separation to the gay rights movement.

Obama's most substantive move on religion so far has been launching his own version of Bush's faith-based initiative office, tasked with helping religious groups get federal dollars for social service projects for the needy. Less than one month into office, while presiding over two wars and a struggling economy, Obama took time to roll out his Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Its expanded mission includes reducing demand for abortion, promoting responsible fatherhood, and facilitating interfaith dialogue, particularly with the Muslim world.

But in a sign of how politically fraught the faith-based office is, the administration has delayed making the most contentious decision surrounding it: whether to allow religious groups to hire only fellow believers with federal funds, as they could under Bush. "This is the 800-pound gorilla," says Americans United's Lynn. Groups like Lynn's say they won't abide federally backed hiring discrimination. But should the administration force religious groups to hire outside their religious tradition with federal funds, "it's a nonstarter for evangelicals," says Land. "They just won't participate in any federal faith-based programs."

The White House's other big faith-based policy focus in Obama's first 100 days has been on developing a plan for reducing demand for abortion while avoiding new limits on abortion rights. The faith-based office recently began partnering with the White House Council on Women and Girls to find common ground between supporters and opponents of abortion rights by focusing on abortion reduction. "If these policies are enacted and the number of abortions actually declines, it would really help the president because he'd have a tangible result," says the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life's John Green. "The pro-life community would have a much more positive view of the Democrats."

As it has worked to bring religious leaders and concerns into the policymaking process through regular conference calls and sit-down meetings, the administration has probably paid even closer attention to faith-based symbolism and messaging. Gay rights groups and liberals pressured Obama to rescind his inaugural invitation to evangelical pastor Rick Warren over his support for a gay marriage ban in California. Obama's refusal sent a clear message to evangelicals and other cultural conservatives that he respected their values.