1. Obama's New Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships: Bad Constitutional Law, Bad Policy, Bad Precedent.
When candidate Barack Obama announced in Zanesville, Ohio, last July that his White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships would "have a broader role -- it will help set our national agenda," it sounded like inspirational campaign-speak. Now we know what Obama meant that summer day on the stump: His hand-picked roster of religious advisers will officially shape policy.
Via executive order signed last Thursday, Obama has appointed an advisory council of religious leaders to help guide administration policy on issues like "abortion reduction," fatherhood, poverty, and international relations. This setup diverges from the approach outlined in his 2006 speech to Sojourners/Call to Renewal, in which he argued laws should have a secular, not a religious basis, a view James Dobson denounced as a "fruitcake" interpretation of the Constitution.
Despite Obama's own lip service to nonbelievers in his Inaugural Address, the inclusion of leaders from nonreligious organizations on this advisory council, and the presence of the word "neighborhood" alongside "faith based" in his new partnership between government and community, this is without a doubt a religious endeavor. Why else would he have chosen the venue of the National Prayer Breakfast -- an event whose origins and true agenda Obama either chose to overlook, doesn't understand, or does understand but nonetheless embraced in the long-standing spirit of phony bipartisanship that the prayer breakfast represents -- to make his first public announcement about the office, followed by a private signing of the executive order at the White House?
Under George W. Bush, a certain religious faction personified by Dobson influenced policy, with regular meetings and conference calls with White House staff, even as Karl Rove called the members of that faction nuts behind their back. But even Bush did not institutionalize the marriage of religion and policy by giving his religious favorites an official White House role.
Advocates for church-state separation and religious liberty are dismayed that Obama walked away from his Zanesville campaign promise to end the Bush-era sops to his evangelical base. He did not, as many had hoped he'd do, reverse two Bush-era executive orders that permitted employment discrimination by federally funded religious organizations and the direct funding of houses of worship. Instead, the executive order he did sign authorizes the director of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and the advisory council to refer particular cases to White House counsel and the Department of Justice for legal review.
Bush's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives was nothing more than a 2004 re-election tool, and Obama, instead of depoliticizing the office, has made it even more political. His campaign's religious outreach director, Joshua DuBois, is now in charge of the office and is leading the council whose members he got to know in his political role. His job in the campaign was to reach out to religious leaders and constituencies for their vote; now he will be partnering with them on policy questions and federal grants to their organizations, as well as deciding which cases of employment discrimination should be subject to legal scrutiny. DuBois will have to work hard to demonstrate that he's not rewarding anyone for getting out the vote, giving them a pass on the constitutional questions, or using the office as a re-election tool as Bush did.
2. Praise God: How The Democrats Got Religion, and What Religion to Expect.
The Council's mandate to help shape "abortion reduction" policy is emblematic of the problems of both the common-ground approach and of giving a policy role to religious organizations. Of course we can all agree that fewer unintended pregnancies -- and therefore fewer abortions -- is a worthy goal. However "abortion reduction" proponents -- mostly men -- say they are for prevention, but insist on including measures that "encourage" women facing an unintended pregnancy to carry it to term. Their reasons are entirely theological.
Reducing the need for abortions is a public-health issue, not a religious one. Family-planning service organizations have been at the forefront of reducing the need for abortions by reducing the number of unintended pregnancies. They serve their communities and neighborhoods, and are, as many proponents of the faith-based office claim about churches, close to and therefore more in tune with the communities they serve than is some far-off bureaucrat. Yet the advisory council, which will help shape federal policy on abortion reduction, is missing a representative from this community and any religious feminists. Claiming that it is going to find common ground on the abortion question is a little like inviting only the cheerleading squad to your party and claiming you're not being cliquish.
3. Celebrate Darwin's 200th Birthday With Science Education.
Tomorrow is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, and those who would proclaim the culture wars over should consider the sobering news from the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) that anti-evolution activists are still intent on getting creationism and intelligent design taught in public schools. The creationists' aim is the enactment of state-level "academic freedom" legislation that would allow science teachers to point out the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution without relying on science -- enabling teachers to "debunk" all of evolutionary teaching by pointing out even just one alleged (and not scientifically supported) hole in the theory.
So far, Louisiana is the only state to pass an academic-freedom bill, and similar bills died in state Houses in Alabama, Florida, Missouri, Michigan, and South Carolina last year and in Mississippi this year. But bills have been introduced in Oklahoma, Iowa, New Mexico, and again in Alabama; the NCSE expects them to reappear in Florida, Missouri, and South Carolina. "These bills are worrisome because they single out evolution, wrongly treating it as suspect and scientifically controversial," said Joshua Rosenau, NCSE's Public Information Project director. "In the 150 years since the Origin of Species was published, evolution has been confirmed by sciences that Darwin could never have imagined, and students need to understand evolution in order to be informed citizens of the 21st century." When asked about the Florida bill in 2007, the Rev. Joel Hunter, one of the advisers on Obama's faith-based council, told a television reporter that youngsters should be taught creationism and intelligent design along with evolution, and decide for themselves.
4. National Religious Broadcasters' Siege Mentality. Frank Wright, president of the National Religious Broadcasters, engaged in just a wee bit of hyperbole at the NRB's first convention since Obama's election. "The proclamation of the Gospel is now opposed at every quarter," he claimed as he announced the group's adoption of a declaration that it would "obey the command of Christ to preach the gospel, even if human governments and institutions attempt to oppose, constrain or prohibit it."
Wright was giving voice to the hysteria in the religious right about the not-imminent return of the Fairness Doctrine, and over proposed legislation to add LGBT people to the protections of federal hate-crimes legislation, which would cramp the NRB's gay-bashing style.
5. Stimulus Package Causes Religious Right Freak-Out. After North Carolina’s Sen. Jim DeMint's anti-church-state separation amendment to the stimulus bill failed last week, the religious right stepped up its rhetoric against the stimulus bill as a whole. The Family Research Council calls it "porkulus"; Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum calls it a "fraud" because it would give jobs to "illegal aliens," Town Hall's Star Parker calls the safety net "Uncle Tom's plantation," and Faith2Action's Janet Porter warns of a communist fifth column in the Obama White House. True patriots all.
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