1. Is the Obama-Evangelical Alliance Cracking Up?
This week heralded what could prove to be a new chapter in the culture wars: the exposure of the schism between the "centrist," Obama-supporting religious figures and the mainstream progressivism actually represented by Obama. Could the crack-up finally show the futility of Democratic outreach designed to appease conservative theologians?
The Rev. Tony Campolo, who advocated for "abortion reduction" language to be included in the 2008 Democratic Party platform, lambasted the administration for going soft on promises to maintain a Bush-era rule that permitted faith-based programs receiving federal funds to discriminate in hiring.
On the campaign trail, Obama had promised to reverse the rule, incensing religious conservatives and centrists. Campolo says Obama later assuaged religious leaders by vowing to keep the rule in place. "There were enough private assurances given," a knowledgeable source tells me, from "all levels of the campaign," that faith-based providers were "not going to be thrown under the bus." Meaning that the campaign created a fine mess attempting to satisfy both the president's inner civil-rights lawyer and the faith constituencies he was trying to court.
"Christians optimistic but disappointed in Obama," declared an Associated Pressheadline last week. A far too broad description, since the Christians interviewed for the piece were mostly evangelical, all conservative, and, -- notably -- all male. All these men are upset about the administration's health policy-making so far, including the repeal of the global gag rule, the lifting of the Bush stem-cell-research funding restrictions, and the reversal of the so-called provider-conscience rule. The men's disappointment clearly outweighed their optimism, and its expression was clearly designed to remind Obama of the mythology that conservative Catholics and evangelicals helped propel him into office.
Questions linger, however, about whether center-right religious votes even made the difference. The evangelical outreach adviser to the Obama campaign, Shaun Casey, admitted to me in an interview last week, "Democrats are not closing the God gap. We stopped some bleeding, and we made some marginal improvements in certain sectors of the evangelical world."
2. Conservative Theology of "Centrists" Causes Rift on Reproductive Health.
The evangelical-centrist frustration with Obama continued to mount, as one of the movement's most visible figures, David Gushee, took his discontent with Obama's reproductive-health policy to the pages of USA Today.
Gushee now regrets his support of Kathleen Sebelius for health and human services secretary, orchestrated with a group of evangelicals who have worked with the Democratic-leaning Faith in Public Life, which Obama domestic policy adviser Melody Barnes helped launch after the 2004 election.
Gushee is frustrated not just with Obama but with his "friends at Democratic or progressive-leaning think tanks" who asked him "not just to refrain from opposing these [global gag rule, stem-cell research, and provider conscience] moves, but instead to support them in the name of a broader understanding of what it means to be pro-life. I mainly refused." Gushee was obviously referring to Third Way and Faith in Public Life, with whom he promoted the Come Let Us Reason Together (CLURT) initiative, which sought "common ground" with evangelicals on reproductive health and LGBT rights. Gushee, as well as Third Way's Rachel Laser and Faith in Public Life's Katie Paris, all either declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment.
"Gushee is right on," says Randy Brinson, a prominent supporter of Mike Huckabee during the 2008 Republican primary, head of the Alabama Christian Coalition, a self-identified evangelical centrist, and an original signer of CLURT. He also tells me that he has been "saying privately what Gushee's saying publicly" to administration officials.
"A lot of us in the center want to give the guy [Obama] a chance," Brinson says, but "he's painting us into a corner. Some of the things he's doing are hard to defend."
3. Administration Pushes Back by Reaching Out to Religious Right.
Barnes took the White House message to Pat Robertson's airwaves, speaking vaguely about "abortion reduction." The front-page Sunday Times profile of the five (again, all male) pastors to whom Obama turns for spiritual and political advice was no doubt intended to persuade the frustrated flocks that the president is no radical -- theological or otherwise. The group includes longtime civil-rights activist Otis Moss but also social conservatives Joel Hunter, Jim Wallis, T.D. Jakes, and former Bush spiritual adviser Kirbyjon Caldwell.
Now the religious right, whose divisive tactics even the evangelical centrists say they eschew, has landed a meeting with the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships (OFBNP). The groups involved -- Concerned Women for America, Family Research Council, and the Christian Medical Association, among others -- are militantly anti-choice, yet the White House apparently is seeking their input for "common ground" on "abortion reduction."
"I don't get what they're doing," a reproductive-health advocate tells me. "[The OFBNP has] not grasped the issue. They're not listening. They're spineless. They don't realize you can't have common ground with people who believe abortion is murder."
Women's- and reproductive-rights groups have asked the OFBNP to meet with them and to give them representation on its advisory council but are still awaiting word. White House spokesperson Jennifer Psaki says meetings are planned but won't specify who is going to be involved.
"It's not a bad thing to listen to people with whom you disagree, as long as you don't capitulate" says Katherine Ragsdale, executive director of the progressive think tank Political Research Associates, an Episcopal priest, and a longtime advocate for reproductive and LGBT rights. "When trying to avoid capitulating it helps to be grounded in your own community -- people who share your values and commitments. So, I'd like to know for sure that they're also meeting with pro-choice religious folks. Not just pro-choice folks but pro-choice religious folks who can provide a counter to the anti-choice religious arguments with which they'll be confronted."
4. OFBNP: Governed by "Chaos" and a "Brain Dead" Rollout, Source Says.
A source with knowledge of OFBNP's activities describes the office as "chaos" driven by "naiveté." The rollout of the office and its advisory council, this source says, "was brain dead."
The source particularly takes aim at the composition of the advisory council. The source is critical of Sojourners president Jim Wallis "elbowing people and going to the head of the class" for a seat on the council, and also says that the selection of past Southern Baptist Convention president Frank Page "makes no sense":
"If you're the Human Rights Campaign, you're saying, wait a minute, you have the fox guarding the hen house." This criticism mirrors that of Frances Kissling, former president of Catholics for Choice, and other feminist theologians, who question the absence of reproductive-choice and LGBT-rights advocates on the council as well as its mission of "abortion reduction." The source is also highly critical of the OFBNP's failure to settle the question of discrimination in hiring, instead deciding to refer to individual cases, at DuBois' discretion, for legal review. The office has come under criticism for dodging the issue, and religious leaders on both sides of the question are dissatisfied. "There are so many unanswered conceptual questions," the source says of the role of the advisory council, which is composed of "polar opposites." "I'm nervous," says the source, who emphasizes a desire for the OFBNP to succeed. "I think there's a lot of angst out there; among D.C. faith-based groups, there's a lot of anxiety."