A New Role for Religion in Obama's White House

Faith has played a larger role in Obama's White House so far than in any other president's.


The conventional wisdom was that George W. Bush was the most faith-based president in recent history, by a long shot. Citing Jesus as his favorite philosopher and Billy Graham as a mentor, Bush won evangelical voters in numbers not previously seen. In office, he launched a controversial office of faith-based initiatives and consulted religious leaders in developing science policy. Bush routinely opened cabinet meetings with prayer and acknowledged conferring with "a higher father" before going to war in Iraq.

How remarkable, then, that religion might be playing an even bigger role in Barack Obama's administration. While Bush invited megapastor Rick Warren to low-key White House functions, Obama had him deliver the invocation at his internationally televised inauguration. Bush encouraged White House prayer groups, but Obama begins public rallies with the recitation of a White House-commissioned prayer. Obama has quickly expanded Bush's faith-based initiatives to include an advisory council of religious leaders weighing in on matters as diverse as abortion and Middle East peace. "This administration has used faith more overtly than any other in its first hundred days," says Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "That includes Bush." But rather than appeal mostly to evangelicals as Bush did, Obama is reaching out to a broad spectrum of believers and nonbelievers.

Early decisions. He is carving out a bold new role for faith in the White House, which aides say aims to dial down the decades-old culture wars. The project may wind up drawing more religious voters into the Democratic fold. But it also threatens to alienate the Democratic base, which polls show is much less religious than the GOP's. Given the important role that religion and church-based organizing have played in Obama's own biography, though, the president is unlikely to abandon his quest for a middle way for faith in government and politics. "My sense is that these efforts give a fairly accurate portrait of what the president really believes," says John Green, senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. "Some conservative Christians worry he's a wolf in sheep's clothing. I think that's overblown."

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 the need for abortion, promoting responsible fatherhood, and facilitating interfaith dialogue, particularly with the Muslim world. While giving the office more influence, the Obama team has strived to placate its secular critics by pledging greater accountability. "We're not judging success by the amount of money that flows out," says Joshua DuBois, the office's executive director, "but by how we're helping those most in need: the number of folks who received mortgage counseling or have been trained for jobs."

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. "Bush's office completely disregarded the separation of church and state, and nobody sees any change from that yet." Resolving the issue is an early test of Obama's ability to bring the culture wars' two sides together.

Differing opinions. The other big test on that score is whether the office can succeed in its goal of reducing the need for abortion while avoiding new limits on abortion rights. The faith-based office is partnering with the White House Council on Women and Girls to find common ground among abortion-rights opponents and supporters around 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's Green. "The pro-life community would have a much more positive view of the Democrats and might work with them more on issues like poverty." If the administration fails to deliver on abortion reduction, however, cultural conservatives who helped Obama win in red states like Indiana and North Carolina may abandon him in 2012.