Taking a page
from President Bush, Democrat Barack Obama said Tuesday he
wants to expand White House efforts to steer social service
dollars to religious groups, risking protests in his
own party with his latest aggressive reach for voters
who usually vote Republican.
he is merely stating long-held positions -- surprising to
some, he said, after a primary campaign in which he was
''tagged as being on the left.''
In recent days,
with the Democratic nomination in hand and the general
election battle with Republican John McCain ahead, Obama has
been sounding centrist themes with comments on guns,
government surveillance, and capital punishment. He's
even quoted Ronald Reagan.
touring a Presbyterian Church-based social services
facility, the Democratic senator said he would get
religious charities more involved in government
antipoverty efforts if elected.
''We need an
all-hands-on-deck approach,'' he said at Eastside Community
The event was
part of a series leading into Friday's Fourth of July
holiday aimed at reassuring skeptical voters and shifting
away from being stamped as part of the Democratic
Party's most liberal wing.
He said the
connection of religion and public service was nothing new in
his personal life.
Obama showed he
was comfortable using the kind of language that is
familiar in evangelical churches and Bible studies by
calling his faith ''a personal commitment to Christ.''
He said that his time as a community organizer in
devastated Chicago neighborhoods, supported in part by a
Catholic group, brought him to a deeper faith and also
convinced him that faith is useless without works.
''While I could
sit in church and pray all I want, I wouldn't be
fulfilling God's will unless I went out and did the Lord's
work,'' he declared.
His talk on faith
in the battleground state of Ohio came a day after a
speech on patriotism in Missouri, another November election
battleground. Wednesday, he travels to Colorado
Springs, Colo., a hub for conservative Christian
organizations, for a speech focused on service.
With 80% of
Americans saying they identify themselves with some
religion, Obama's campaign has struggled with the
of America by Obama's longtime pastor, the Reverend
Jeremiah Wright, caused a firestorm during the primaries and
brought Obama's brand of faith under scrutiny because
of Wright's adherence to black liberation theology.
Obama also has battled false but persistent rumors
that he is a Muslim; they have been kept alive on the
Internet despite his repeated talk about his longtime
devotion to Christianity.
Christians make up about a quarter of the electorate, and
they helped put Bush in office twice. Many still are likely
to oppose the Democratic nominee because of his
support for abortion rights, gay rights, and other
An AP-Yahoo News
poll in June found that people who attend church at
least once a week support Republican McCain over Obama, 49%
to 37%. Those who attend church less often tend to
favor Obama. White evangelical Christians who attend
church weekly favor McCain by huge margins.
Still, the Obama
camp notes that some evangelicals feel passionately
about aggressive environmental stewardship, an issue more
commonly associated with Democrats. Others find appeal
in Obama's message about ending messy political
won the endorsement of the Reverend Kirbyjon Caldwell, a
Houston Methodist megachurch leader who is very close to
McCain is a
mostly reliable conservative vote, but he isn't as
passionate or vocal about religious conservatives as
some would like. He also famously upbraided some
Christian evangelical leaders as ''agents of
intolerance'' in his first presidential campaign. He has
sought to make amends since then and is continuing his
outreach efforts. He met with world-renowned
evangelist Billy Graham last weekend.
high-profile embrace of a key theme of Bush's time in office
-- the ''faith-based initiative'' -- is just the
latest example of him trying to show his centrist
Last week he
quoted Reagan, saying, ''we have to trust but verify,''
after Bush lifted trade sanctions against North Korea and
moved to remove the country from the U.S. terrorism
supported new electronic surveillance rules for the
government's eavesdropping program, saying ''an important
tool in the fight against terrorism will continue,''
after opposing a similar bill last year. After the
Supreme Court overturned the District of Columbia's
gun ban, he said he favors both an individual's right to
bear firearms and a government's right to regulate
On Iraq, he has
gone from hard-edged, vocal opposition to more nuanced
rhetoric that calls for a phased-out troop drawdown that
could last 16 months. He also disagreed with the
Supreme Court decision last week that struck down a
Louisiana law allowing capital punishment for people who
rape children under 12.
reporters, Obama disputed that he is altering views.
''I get tagged as
being on the left and, when I simply describe what has
been my position consistently, then suddenly people act
surprised,'' he said. ''But there hasn't been
substantial shifts there.''
While Obama would
expand Bush's efforts to give religious charities more
equal footing when getting federal funding, he also would
tweak what he would call the President's Council for
Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in ways that
divert from Bush's approach.
He would increase
spending on social services, starting with a $500
million-a-year program to keep 1 million poor children up to
speed on their studies over the summers. He would
increase training for charities applying for funding
and make it a grassroots effort. He would elevate the
program to be ''a critical part of my administration,'' a
reference to criticism that Bush paid barely more than
lip service to his effort.
Obama also chose
a different emphasis for why religious charities are an
important answer to solving poverty and other social
problems: because they better know the people who are
hurting, instead of Bush's argument that religion
itself is a transforming power the government must not be
afraid to harness.
And while Bush
supports allowing all religious groups to make any
employment decisions based on faith, Obama proposes allowing
religious institutions to hire and fire based on
religion only in the non-taxpayer-funded portions of
their activities -- consistent with current federal,
state, and local laws. ''That makes perfect sense,'' he
Where there are
state or local laws prohibiting hiring choices based on
sexual orientation in the federally funded portion of the
programs, he said he would support those being
would make his proposal ''dead on arrival'' for many
evangelicals and small churches, said Jim Towey, a former
head of Bush's faith-based office. That's because
telling a small organization to keep employees hired
with federal funds separate from others ''is unmanageable
-- and besides, those folks want to hire people who share
their vision and mission,'' Towey said.
Even as Obama
courts the Right, his support for a signature Bush program
could invite protest from others.
has been a failure on all counts, and it ought to be
shut down, not expanded,'' said the Reverend Barry W. Lynn,
executive director of Americans United for Separation
of Church and State. (Jennifer Loven, AP)