Jul. 1, 2008 06:37 AM
CHICAGO - Reaching out to evangelical voters, Democratic presidential candidate
Barack Obama is announcing plans to expand President Bush's program steering
federal social service dollars to religious groups and - in a move sure to cause
controversy - support some ability to hire and fire based on faith.
Obama was unveiling his approach to getting religious charities more involved in
government anti-poverty programs during a tour and remarks Tuesday in
Zanesville, Ohio, at Eastside Community Ministry, which provides food, clothes,
youth ministry and other services.
"The challenges we face today ... are simply too big for government to solve
alone," Obama was to say, according to a prepared text of his remarks obtained
by The Associated Press. "We need all hands on deck."
Obama's announcement is part of a series of events leading up to Friday's Fourth
of July holiday that are focused on American values.
The Democratic presidential candidate spent Monday talking about his vision of
patriotism in the battleground state of Missouri. By twinning that with
Tuesday's talk about faith in another battleground state, he was attempting to
settle debate in two key areas where his beliefs have come under question while
also trying to make inroads with constituencies traditionally loyal to
But Obama's support for letting religious charities that receive federal funding
consider religion in employment decisions could invite a storm of protest from
those who view such faith requirements as discrimination.
Obama does not support requiring religious tests for recipients of aid nor using
federal money to proselytize, according to a campaign fact sheet. He also only
supports letting religious institutions hire and fire based on faith in the
non-taxypayer funded portions of their activities, said a senior adviser to the
campaign, who spoke on condition of anonymity to more freely describe the new
Bush supports broader freedoms for taxpayer-funded religious charities. But he
never got Congress to go along so he has conducted the program through
administrative actions and executive orders.
David Kuo, a conservative Christian who was deputy director of Bush's Office of
Faith-Based and Community Initiatives until 2003 and later became a critic of
Bush's commitment to the cause, said Obama's position on hiring has the
potential to be a major "Sister Souljah moment" for his campaign.
This is a reference to Bill Clinton's accusation in his 1992 presidential
campaign that the hip hop artist incited violence against whites. Because
Clinton said this before a black audience, it fed into an image of him as a bold
politician who was willing to take risks and refused to pander.
"This is a massive deal," said Kuo, who is not an Obama adviser or supporter but
was contacted by the campaign to review the new plan.
Kuo called Obama's approach smart, impressive and well thought-out but took a
wait-and-see attitude about whether it would deliver.
"When it comes to promises to help the poor, promises are easy," said Kuo, who
wrote a 2006 book describing his frustration at what he called Bush's lackluster
enthusiasm for the program. "The question is commitment."
Obama proposes to elevate the program to a "moral center" of his administration,
by renaming it the Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and
changing training from occasional huge conferences to empowering larger
religious charities to mentor smaller ones in their communities.
Saying social service spending has been shortchanged under Bush, he also
proposes a $500 million per year program to provide summer learning for 1
million poor children to help close achievement gaps with white and wealthier
students. A campaign fact sheet said he would pay for it by better managing
surplus federal properties, reducing growth in the federal travel budget and
streamlining the federal procurement process.
Like Bush, Obama was arguing that religious organizations can and should play a
bigger role in serving the poor and meeting other social needs. But while Bush
argued that the strength of religious charities lies primarily in shared
religious identity between workers and recipients, Obama was to tout the
benefits of their "bottom-up" approach.
"Because they're so close to the people, they're well-placed to offer help," he
was to say.
He also planned to talk bluntly about the genesis of his Christian faith in his
work as a community organizer in Chicago, and its importance to him now.
"In time, I came to see faith as being both a personal commitment to Christ and
a commitment to my community; that 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 was to say.