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Obama's Faithful Flock | The Nation

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Obama's Faithful Flock

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Sean Faircloth, executive director of the Secular Coalition for America (SCA), says, "The president has yet to implement his stated policy, so today government funds can still be used to discriminate based on religion or lack thereof. That's unconstitutional." Americans United and the SCA, along with other members of the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination (CARD), a network of civil liberties groups, have been urging Obama to repeal the Bush rules.

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Sarah Posner
Sarah Posner is senior editor of Religion Dispatches, where she writes a blog about religion and politics. Follow her...

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Among religious progressives, the dissatisfaction runs deep. The case-by-case rule "doesn't offer much assurance for people who are concerned about discrimination," says the Interfaith Alliance's Gaddy, also a CARD member. "What is it that you have to see to decide not to discriminate?" The White House recently appointed Gaddy to a task force to recommend how to improve the "constitutional and legal footing" of the office, but the question of hiring discrimination, he says, is not on the agenda.

Center-right religious activists, assiduously courted by Obama during the campaign, see the hiring question differently. The ability to engage in what they call "co-religionist" hiring--for example, not hiring a gay applicant because his sexual orientation violates the organization's religious beliefs--is central to their mission of providing faith-based services, they insist. Without that ability, they have no interest in the faith-based initiative.

After Obama's Zanesville speech, these activists pressured his campaign to reverse course. In response, the campaign quietly promised religious activists that Obama would keep the Bush rules in place. As the Rev. Tony Campolo, who served on the DNC's platform committee, wrote in the Huffington Post earlier this year, the Obama campaign sought to "still the anxieties" of leaders of some of the "largest faith-based organizations in the country" by "giving assurances that if no fuss was made by drawing attention to these problems, the policies that were in place on these matters during the Bush Administration would be continued."

It is this constituency--center-right evangelicals and Catholics--that Obama continued to appease through the creation of a twenty-five-member advisory council to the OFBNP. The council's mission is to provide policy guidance on poverty, abortion reduction, responsible fatherhood and global interfaith relations. Church-state separation advocates see the council's mandate, which frames major policy issues in religious terms and institutionalizes an outside council of advisers, as a step beyond even Bush's faith-based initiative. "This council either comes dangerously close, or it is a kind of institutional intertwining of religion and government," says Gaddy.

Kissling calls the OFBNP's mandate to address abortion "shocking." Expanding the role of the faith-based office to include abortion policy "sends a very clear message about what the administration thinks religion is and what the philosophical underpinnings of the administration's approach to abortion is. The administration's approach is religious."

The Rev. Peter Laarman, executive director of Progressive Christians Uniting, maintains that the advisory council's to-do list is aimed at placating conservatives, not advancing a progressive religious agenda. "They are issues of primary concern to religious conservatives, and even poverty reduction has a conservative framing. I mean, why aren't religious leaders being asked for advice on progressive taxation? On how to deal with big money in politics?... Those to me are issues with as much or more religious significance as supporting stable family life."

While some on the OFBNP's advisory council, notably Sojourners founder Jim Wallis, have claimed the mantle of "religious progressive" and, more recently, "religious left," the bona fide religious left has largely been sidelined. When you look at the composition of the council, says Laarman, you see that "these were highly strategic selections with a view toward rewarding or cultivating very specific faith groups. With a couple of exceptions, hard-core religious progressives aren't there."

Of the first fifteen advisory council appointments, made February 5, only one was prochoice, and more, including a Catholic and a Southern Baptist, were ardent opponents of legal abortion. Two months later, when the White House filled out the remaining ten appointments, it added prochoice religious voices, but they were not from the ranks of the most prominent activists on abortion, such as representatives of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. Opponents of LGBT equality also outnumbered gay-rights proponents, although the administration later added Harry Knox, director of the Faith and Religion Program at the Human Rights Campaign.

Center-right abortion-reduction proponents, however, have had an easier time securing a hearing. When David Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University and one of the most prominent voices from the evangelical center, complained publicly that Obama was not doing enough to fulfill his pledge to reduce abortions, he immediately received a call from the White House. "I regularly, weekly, get invited to come to the White House for a meeting or to listen or participate in a conference call on a range of things," Gushee told me.

Gushee was the principal author of a 1996 manifesto, The America We Seek: A Statement of Pro-Life Principle and Concern, signed by forty-five religious-right leaders as well as advisory council member Wallis. It posited that it was unlikely Roe v. Wade would be overruled, and called instead for criminalizing doctors who perform abortions (but not "women in crisis"), opening more "crisis pregnancy centers" and passing a constitutional amendment overturning Roe and giving fetuses personhood status. Gushee said recently, "The principles articulated in this statement still reflect my own views."

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