Obama’s Faith-Based Makeover

On Tuesday, July 1, in a speech delivered at the Eastside Community Ministry in Zanesville, Ohio, Sen. Barack Obama pledged that if he were elected president, he would overhaul and expand President George W. Bush’s faith-based initiative. Obama’s plan for a “Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships” (a name remarkably similar Bush’s White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives) would “help set our national agenda” and deal with such issues as AIDS in inner cities and climate change.

“The challenges we face today — from saving our planet to ending poverty — are simply too big for government to solve alone,” Obama said. “We need an all-hands-on-deck approach.”

The two immediately discernible differences between Bush’s project, which in fiscal year 2007 doled out $2.2-billion to faith-based organizations (10.8 percent of a total of $20.4-billion in competitive grants awarded to nonprofit groups by 11 federal agencies) are over the issues of proselytization and discriminatory hiring practices. While Team Bush has appeared to look away while religious groups received federal money yet continued to proselytize amongst the people who received its services, Obama is opposed to that practice. The Senator also declared that religious groups receiving government grants should not be allowed to discriminate in its hiring practices.

“If you get a federal grant, you can’t use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can’t discriminate against them — or against the people you hire — on the basis of their religion,” Obama said. “Federal dollars that go directly to churches, temples, and mosques can only be used on secular programs.”

In keeping with his recent outreach efforts to religious communities, Obama pointed out that “There are some who bristle at the notion that faith has a place in the public square. But the fact is leaders in both parties have recognized the value of a partnership between the White House and faith-based groups.”

While some immediately applauded Obama, as anticipated, some did “bristle.” Others were merely confused.

A headline at the conservative Heritage Foundation’s website read “Obama Takes the ‘Faith’ Out of Faith-Based Initiative.” The Family Research Council labeled it “Faith-Based Feint?” The Christian Post saw it as “Obama Prying Loose Evangelicals from Republicans.” The Progressive magazine called his new plan “Obama’s Faith-Based Folly,” and The National Journal asked if Obama was “Out-Bushing Bush?”

The Obama campaign released a statement from John DiIulio, the first director of Bush’s faith-based program, endorsing the new plan.

The Rev. Barry Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a group that opposed Bush’s faith-based initiative from its inception, expressed his “disappointment.” “This initiative has been a failure on all counts, and it ought to be shut down, not expanded,” he said. However, Lynn did allow that he was encouraged that the plan would not try to fudge church-state boundaries: “It is imperative that public funds not pay for proselytizing or subsidize discrimination in hiring. Obama has promised that he will not support publicly funded proselytism or discrimination in hiring, and that’s an important commitment.”

The Rev. Richard Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals, and one of those who has bucked the old-time evangelical leaders over several issues, including global warming, said that Obama’s position on hiring “would constitute a deal-breaker” for many evangelicals. “For those of who us who believe in protecting the integrity of our religious institutions, this is a fundamental right. He’s rolling back the Bush protections. That’s extremely disappointing.”

Jim Towey, who ran the White House Office from 2002 to 2006, said that while he was encouraged by Obama’s remarks, he thought the hiring mandates would be a problem. “The reality is an Orthodox Jewish group ceases to be Orthodox if they have to hire atheists or Southern Baptists,” Towey said. “What Senator Obama is saying is groups will have to secularize if they play ball with government and receive federal funding, and that flies in the face of what many small groups want.”

In his daily FRC (Family Research Council) Action Update, Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, pointed out that while Obama’s plan “sounds appealing,” his opposition to California’s anti-same-sex marriage ballot initiative “provide a frightening glimpse” into what the plan might really bring. “While telling the world he will up hold the faith-based initiative as the cornerstone of his administration, Obama says that a cornerstone of society — heterosexual marriage — is ‘divisive and discriminatory,’ wrote Perkins.

“Doesn’t this mean that faith-based organizations that support marriage will be disqualified from federal funding under an Obama presidency?” Perkins went on. “It would be next to impossible for ministries that promote traditional marriage to participate in a Healthy Marriage project funded through an Obama faith-based initiative. There is no doubt that Sen. Obama is polished on the issue of faith, but it’s his record — not his rhetoric — that speaks louder.”


It is notable that Obama’s outreach to Christians has led him to stake out a position on faith-based initiatives at just about the same time President Bush appears to attempting to build his legacy around that project. On July 26, Bush addressed a Washington, D.C. conference of administration officials and religious leaders, and touted the successes of his faith-based initiative. He followed that up with his Saturday radio broadcast that again extolled the project’s virtues.

In January 2001, surrounded by a broad mix of religious leaders, Bush announced an executive order bringing the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives into existence. In a nod to bi-partisanship, he name John DiIulio, an academic with Democratic Party credentials to be the first faith-based czar. Bush also issued an executive order establishing Centers for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives at the Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor, Justice, Education and Housing and Urban Development. The Centers would eventually be established at 11 government agencies.

Bush’s faith-based initiative was formulated to be the centerpiece of his domestic agenda, and was geared toward displaying the fact that the man who ran on a platform of “compassionate conservatism,” was indeed a compassionate conservative.

While the two buzz phrases touted by Team Bush were “compassionate conservatism” and “releasing the armies of compassion,” in reality the initiative was aimed at bringing several pieces of the conservative agenda together; limited government participation in doling out social services, the privatization/religiozation of those social services, and the creation of a new social contract.

From the outset, the project had problems. Major conservative evangelical leaders such as the late Rev. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson opposed the initiative because they were concerned that groups like the Church of Scientology and the National of Islam would receive government grants. (Robertson later reversed course and his controversial enterprise, Operation Blessing, was the recipient of as much as $14 million in federal grants.) Other evangelical leaders were concerned that accepting federal funds meant accepting federal guidelines which would water down their religious missions. Liberal critics were concerned that the initiative would be used to consolidate Bush’s base — providing money to conservative Christian evangelical groups — and there would be an end run around the separation of church and state.

In Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction, David Kuo, the former second-in-command of the White House Office, charged that the Bush White House had politicized the initiative, sometimes rejecting applications for federal faith-based funds because they came from non-Christian applicants, mocked leaders of the Christian Right, and betrayed the very essence of the faith-based initiative’s charge to help the poor.

And just within the past few weeks, ABC News revealed that the administration had awarded a large grant to Victory Outreach, a faith-based group that staff had declined to recommend for the money. It was deemed that too much of the money was going to a consulting firm run by Lisa Trevino Cummins (who had previously headed Hispanic outreach efforts for the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives), and not to children’s services.

One of the biggest — and still largely unanswered — questions about giving money to religious organizations to provide social services is whether these groups actually outperform or perform as well as secular groups or government agencies performing the same tasks. Bush is attempting to build a legacy around his faith-based initiative by using a pocketful of anecdotes. But no matter how well-meaning and moving these stories are, they are only anecdotes, not evidence that these programs have worked. If Obama’s makeover is to be taken seriously, if his proposed version of the faith-based initiative can work at all, there must be mechanisms in place that will rigorously measure results and outcomes.

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. Read other articles by Bill.

10 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. hp said on July 9th, 2008 at 11:05am #

    As evidenced by Obama’s “anomalous” airplane incident recently, he ain’t POTUS yet.
    The pile of dead bodies relating to the Clintons and their illustrous careers is impressive in its varieties.

  2. Anon said on July 9th, 2008 at 2:58pm #

    meanwhile back on earth…..

    Nicely stated, Bill.

  3. John Hatch said on July 9th, 2008 at 5:36pm #

    I recommend Esther Kaplan’s ‘With God on Their Side’ ((The New Press).
    The subtitle is ‘How Christian Fundamentalists Trampled Science, Policy, and Democracy in George W. Bush’s White House’.

    A scary read, and now Mr. Obama wants to make matters worse. I’m glad I live in Canada. For the health care, too.

  4. Deadbeat said on July 10th, 2008 at 12:18am #

    Behind the Myth of War for Oil

    The widely-shared but erroneous view that recent U.S. wars of choice are driven by oil concerns is partly due to precedence: the fact that for a long time military force was key to colonial or imperialist control and exploitation of foreign markets and resources, including oil. It is also partly due to perception: the exaggerated notion that both President Bush and Vice President Cheney were “oil men” before coming to the White House. But, as noted earlier, George W. Bush was never more than an ineffective minor oil prospector and Dick Cheney was never really an oil man; he headed the notorious Halliburton company that sold (and still sells) services to oil companies and the Pentagon.

    But the major reason for the persistence of this pervasive myth seems to stem from certain deliberate efforts that are designed to perpetuate the legend in order to camouflage some real economic and geopolitical special interests that drive U.S. military adventures in the Middle East. There is evidence that both the military-industrial complex and hard-line Zionist proponents of “greater Israel” disingenuously use oil (as an issue of national interest) in order to disguise their own nefarious special interests and objectives: justification of continued expansion of military spending, extension of sales markets for military hardware, and recasting the geopolitical map of the Middle East in favor of Israel.


  5. evie said on July 10th, 2008 at 6:32am #

    Not pertinent to the article but this past weekend my 3 Latina daughters-in-law told me that the word “Hispanic” to describe them was a no-no. “His-panic” they laughed. They prefer Latina or Latino.

    Also not pertinent, but the term “faith-based” reminds me of an older B movie titled “Rising Storm” about a godly futuristic US run by Rev. Jimmy Joe. In one scene a dissident asks the jackbooted troopers arresting him “what about my rights?” and the trooper says “f*ck your rights, praise the lord.” There was also a class of people known as Knotheads.

  6. bozhidar balkas said on July 10th, 2008 at 2:24pm #

    evie, some questions for u?
    r u for sale or on sale? i hope ur under 96. i’m 96
    now, the question may be taken many ways. what do u think i meant?
    thank u

  7. evie said on July 10th, 2008 at 5:47pm #

    I do not know with certainty what your question pertains to. Am I for sale or on sale?

    I would answer in the negative as I have never been nor am I now for sale. However, no one has ever made me an offer that I couldn’t refuse.

    I am under 96. I am under 86, under 76, under 66.

  8. bozhidar balkas said on July 11th, 2008 at 12:31pm #

    it’s a joke. and most jokes contain some truth. i’m glad u answered. yes, i wanted to buy u. like one wd buy the dog in the window that patti page sung ab.
    but since every woman (now don’t go into a shock) is potentially a whore, i had also other ideas.
    but hold it! every man is also potentially a whore as well. it is a matter of how much money a woman wants to pay.
    in any case i use this joke on women; not on men! most laugh. others r not annoeyed at all. some say, Well, i don’t know. or i dont know what to say.
    anyhow evie, it seems to me u haven’t tied self up in knots when u read my message. i lied, evie; i’m under 96. thank u

  9. hp said on July 11th, 2008 at 12:37pm #

    I laughed.

  10. evie said on July 11th, 2008 at 3:18pm #

    well boz,
    I guess i took that question one of the other many ways. My gramma used to say men are walking penises from age 8 to 80, but will up that to 96.