1. Why Does Obama's Faith-Based Office Spurn Mainstream Values?
To promote the alleged "common ground" on "abortion reduction," Joshua DuBois, the director of President Barack Obama's Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships (OFBNP), gave a rare interview to Newsweek last week. In it, he embraced the Come Let Us Reason Together mythology that the end of the "culture wars" is nigh, if only those old battle axes on the left and right would lay down their arms. DuBois maintained, "There's a culture-war industry on both sides . . . What's helpful to the president and to us is a lot of people are weary of that. People are looking for ways out."
With this cringe-worthy denigration of reproductive health advocates as just as extreme as abortion clinic harassers, DuBois signals a future of mealy-mouthed Democrats who are pro-choice in their hearts, though timid when it comes to campaign rhetoric and policy.
Obama, so far, has not exhibited cowardice on setting policy. But he is accommodating the "common grounders" by giving them priority seating on his OFBNP advisory council, and telling them they will help shape policy on "reducing the need for abortion." That's the administration's favored phrase over the clinical "abortion reduction," which sounds like an Orwellian government program.
With his Council appointments now complete, Obama has given far more seats on his Council to religious leaders who are anti-choice than to ones who are openly pro-choice, even though the majority of Americans favor legal abortion. There are only two pro-choicers, and they're both Jewish. Reproductive health advocates suggested several pro-choice Christians to the White House as worthy additions to the council. By not giving them seats, though, the administration shows that it is too afraid to challenge anti-choice evangelicals by putting their pro-choice brothers and sisters at the same table.
At their core, Obama's selections for the council are clearly aimed at keeping the "common ground" center-right happy. The effort has largely been a bust, though, as those centrists now say they are dismayed by his policies. They can express disappointment, but they should not have been surprised by his reversal of the global gag rule, the Bush midnight-hour "provider conscience" rule, and the ban on federal funding for stem cell research. He was clear on his views on these issues during the campaign, and he won anyway.
Already, there are Republican moves afoot to reclaim voters who might have strayed to Obama. Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson ballyhooed the supposed decline in Catholic support for Obama. Mike Huckabee, eyeing 2012, wondered if his fellow evangelicals who supported Obama had "buyers' remorse."
Surely the prospect of disenchanting these voters will strike fear in the hearts of political consultants enamored of the emerging party line -- that Democrats have to talk "abortion reduction" and God to attract religious voters. While there?s little evidence that this strategy helped the Democrats take over Washington, Democrats appear to be continuing to steer the party in that direction.
2. New Faith-Based Council Appointments: Culture Warriors Abound.
While DuBois was lambasting culture warriors, the White House was unafraid to appoint battle commanders -- from the right -- to the OFBNP advisory council.
Obama came under fire last week for inviting former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy to fill one of the 10 remaining slots on the council. Dungy, an outspoken evangelical who claims to apply Bible lessons to win football games, had consorted with the Focus on the Family affiliate in Indiana in opposing same-sex marriage there. That, apparently, garnered him an invitation to the advisory council, which he reportedly turned down, followed by an invitation to serve as an adviser to the president on "responsible fatherhood."
That sort of culture warrior gets a pass, similar to the one accorded Rick Warren. Warren not only endorsed California's Proposition 8 last year, but this week tried to mislead the public into thinking he did no such thing. There's the new Billy Graham for you, the representative of what is effectively America's official religion.
Obama did appoint Harry Knox, who performs religious outreach for the LGBT rights advocacy group Human Rights Campaign, to the council. It was a nice symbolic move, but Obama also added religious figures who oppose LGBT equality and use their version of religion (now affirmed by the president as mainstream and acceptable) to bludgeon LGBT people for being hell-bound sinners. But, you know, Americans are weary of all that.
3. The Long-Term Consequences of OFBNP's "Common Ground" on Abortion.
Religious pro-choicers are stung by Obama's willingness to cater to a center that is more aligned with the right than it is with them -- and, by the way, with Obama himself and the majority of Americans.
As Frances Kissling, a visiting scholar at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania and former president of Catholics for Choice, told me last week, Obama "has a good short-term strategy to make me happy, but his long-term messaging on this and the long-term messaging of the others, excludes women as moral agents and puts forward an unnuanced notion of abortion as morally wrong period." While Obama might do the right thing now, "that message carried out over long term does . . . create the climate in which eventually abortion could become illegal."
There is no doubt that many of the "centrists" Obama courted during the campaign with his "reducing the need" rhetoric want to see abortion made illegal or at least effectively unavailable.
The Rev. Dr. Katherine Hancock Ragsdale, who was recently appointed Dean of Episcopal Divinity School in Boston, agrees that the "abortion reduction" language is aimed at ultimately outlawing abortion. "In the long term, I'm not sure we do ourselves any favors by stigmatizing abortion," says Ragsdale, who has served on the board of NARAL Pro-Choice America. "Do I think we going to defuse [the culture wars] to adopt some common rhetoric for a little while? No. I think we're being seduced into thinking so that yet again we can move the center further to the right. They're being very successful in seducing much of the left into doing that."
4. Seducing the Left, Defining the Left.
Last week, tensions between two progressive religious camps were taken public with a rather bitter back and forth. On one side were the "common ground" progressives who are proponents of "building bridges" with conservatives. On the other side were their progressive critics, members of a burgeoning religious left that objects to the jettisoning of reproductive and LGBT rights in the name of making common ground.
So far, the former group seems to have the ear of the White House and the Democratic Party. These self-described progressives, despite their protestations to the contrary, are more interested in winning elections than standing up for a righteous cause. Will the Democrats take notice of the religious left, or has the "common ground" group, which marginalizes the pro-choice, pro-LGBT equality religious left as extremist, become the quasi-official religion of the party?
5. At Heart of Culture Wars Is Evangelical Unwillingness to Talk Sex.
Linda Kay Klein, a former evangelical working on a book about women and evangelicalism, tentatively titled, Man-Made Girls, disputes the claim that focusing on "abortion reduction" will end the culture wars. So far, says Klein, "we've seen more language than action come out of Obama's Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, so it is difficult to gauge how 'abortion reduction' will really play out." But, she adds, "whatever the Office decides, it is pretty clear that the wars will continue, in some shape or form, beyond Obama's time in office."
Klein adds that she is glad to see evangelicals "at least talking about abortion, even if they are evasive about their personal beliefs on the issue.? Even though evangelicals avoid it, "we must continue to talk about sex and the body now more than ever, alongside these other issues," says Klein. "I want talk about gender. I want to talk about sexuality . . . I want to talk about change."
In trying to straddle both science and faith, Obama is giving an official imprimatur to a religious constituency that is too squeamish to talk about the most basic science: that of reproduction.