Obama's Faith-Based Initiatives Program Could Be Stronger Than Bush's

The president is trying to satisfy church-state separation watchdogs and religious conservatives.


It's easy to dismiss President Obama's early gestures to religious conservatives as window dressing. Yes, he had evangelical megapastor Rick Warren, who is a foe of abortion rights, gay marriage, and embryonic stem cell research, deliver the invocation on Inauguration Day. But no one thinks Warren will have Obama's ear on social policy.

Obama's aides made a big deal of his refusal to use the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, his second full day in office, to lift George W. Bush's ban on U.S. funds going to abortion providers overseas. The ban, known to detractors as the "global gag rule," was first imposed by Ronald Reagan. Right after he took office, President Clinton used the anniversary of Roe to send a signal to abortion-rights advocates by lifting the ban. Bush reinstated it on Roe's anniversary in 2001. Obama's decision to wait to lift the ban "was an initial sign of respect" for antiabortion activists, says a well-placed Democratic source. A day later, Obama did lift the so-called gag rule.

But it would be a mistake to dismiss Obama's sensitivities to conservative religious folk as political stagecraft. For a couple of months now, Obama's aides have quietly been devising a plan for expanding George W. Bush's signature program for blending church and state: the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. "This president comes in on a sweeping Democratic victory and he wants to expand faith-based initiatives, and not reluctantly but enthusiastically," says Stanley Carlson-Thies, who helped design faith-based initiatives for President Bush. "Who would have thought?"

Thursday, Obama formally launched his Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, to be led by his campaign's director of religious outreach, a 26-year-old Pentecostal pastor named Joshua DuBois. The thorny legal and political issues that DuBois and his team will be working on, including whether to bar religious groups from discriminating on the basis of religion in filling government-funded jobs, have already come into view. In trying to satisfy both the religious groups that Bush brought into the White House and advocates of church-state separation, Obama faces a delicate balancing act. He could wind up alienating both camps. But if he can mollify church-state separation watchdogs with new limits on how faith-based funds are spent while also expanding the universe of religious groups involved, Obama just might make the Bush program stronger than before.

After Obama was elected, aides embarked on an intensive fact-finding mission to learn about faith-based initiatives under Bush and to collect ideas for improving (or fixing, as critics would say) the program. Obama's team met with dozens of groups with a stake in faith-based initiatives, from traditional social service providers like Catholic Charities USA to a constellation of new religious left groups to Bush White House veterans like Carlson-Thies. The team even powwowed with opponents of faith-based initiatives, including Jewish groups worried about state-supported Christianity.

The biggest question for Obama is how he'll handle Bush's policy of allowing faith-based groups to use religious background as a factor in hiring for government-funded positions. In announcing his faith-based office, Obama delayed a decision on the matter until further legal review. Advocates of church-state separation and liberal backers of faith-based initiatives view the Bush policy, which exempts religious groups from federal nondiscrimination rules attached to government funds, as illegal discrimination. Some religious groups and those on the right see it as an essential safeguard for faith-based organizations' rights to exercise religious convictions.

On the campaign trail, Obama vowed to end the Bush exemption on non-discrimination laws for religious groups. That could scare off major Christian groups like the Salvation Army, which might decline federal funds rather than be forced to hire an atheist or a Muslim. "If the message to religious groups is, you're welcome in the public square if you alter hiring practices and water down your religious identity, you're going to lose a lot of them," says Jim Towey, who directed faith-based initiatives under Bush.