Since Barack Obama was elected, religious groups have been waging a non-stopped campaign criticizing the Obama Administration for infringing on their religious liberties. Republican Presidential hopefuls have called President Obama the most liberal, anti-religion, president ever. The Faith and Freedom Coalition recently urged its members to sign a petition speaking out against the Administration’s “war on religion.” The petition stated, “The Obama Administration’s actions are evidence of a pattern of hostility towards religious institutions and an antipathy to uphold and protect the nation’s most fundamental founding principles.” Jay Sekulow, with the American Center for Law & Justice, said our president’s health care bill will “force religious institutions to violate their religious beliefs.”
How is it that I can be so off the mark? It seems to me our President has bent over backwards and has often gone too far accommodating religious groups. How can I be so wrong and the Religious Right be so upset? Let’s see if we can figure out what’s going on.
I want to first overview some Administration policies that have agitated the religious right and then site some policies that have annoyed progressives and Americans United in particular. I think by the end you’ll agree that, in contrast to what many of the Religious Right think, our President has been overly accommodating to the Religious Right.
So what’s upsetting the Religious Right? Most recently is the requirement that institutions affiliated with religious organizations offer contraceptive coverage in their health insurance plans. This plan was subsequently modified to exclude religious institutions from actually having to cover contraceptives, but many on the right are still mad, arguing that even with the modification, this requirement still violates their religious freedoms. On another front, last year conservatives hotly disagreed with the Administration for declining to renew a contract with the Conference of Catholic Bishops to provide services for human trafficking victims, because the Bishops refused to provide referrals for contraception and abortion to sexual assault victims. And last Thanksgiving, the Religious Right expressed their displeasure when during President Obama’s holiday message, he failed to mention God. Fox radio host Todd Starnes took issue saying, “His remarks were void of any religious references, although Thanksgiving is a holiday traditionally steeped in giving thanks and praise to God.” Concerning gay rights, the Religious Right was not happy when President Obama announced, during his 2nd State of the Union address, his new policy toward allowing gays to serve openly in the US Military.
Unfortunately, all this noise about our President infringing on religious freedoms has overshadowed the truth: When it comes to religious organizations and their treatment by the federal government, the Obama Administration has been extremely generous. Religious groups have benefited greatly from a wide array of policies. Catholic religious charities, for example, have received more than $700 million from the US Department of Health and Human Services. Under the Obama Administration, aid to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, a perpetual critic of President Obama, went from $71.8 million during the Bush Administration to $81.4 million during the present Administration. In fiscal year 2011 alone, the group received a record $31.4 million from the Administration it believes is anti-religion.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State believes that in an ideal world, there would be no government-sponsored faith-based initiative. The concept of a federal office aimed at finding ways to funnel tax money to religious groups is impossible to square with our country’s tradition of separation of church and state. Government funding inevitably brings regulation and threatens the integrity of religion. None of this is in the best interest of faith groups or the taxpayers.
During the 2008 campaign, then-candidate Obama expressed many of the same concerns. In a speech in Zanesville, Ohio, Obama said, “[I]f you get a federal grant, you can’t use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can’t discriminate against them or against the people you hire on the basis of their religion.” When the President rolled out his version of the faith-based initiative in February 2009, however, he left the old Bush executive orders in place.
President Obama not only didn’t rescind the Bush-era Executive Orders that allowed faith groups receiving taxpayer money to discriminate in hiring, but he hired Rev. Joshua Dubois to head the Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and doubled the budget. He then created the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships – a group of 25 faith leaders – to advise him on policy matters.
One could reasonably conclude that with all this support for religious organizations, the Obama Administration would’ve earned some reciprocity from the right. But not so – they dislike him as much as ever. In addition, he’s alienated progressives as well. Barry Lynn, Americans United’s Executive Director, said, “Obama hasn’t changed anything. We’ve got more money, arguably, with no additional strings attached going to the same groups that often discriminate on the basis of religion in hiring.”
I’m inclined to think that the answer to this puzzle is that we are witnessing politics as usual – political triangulation as Bill Clinton coined it. Our President is simply playing a game that most politicians play: speak to and appease as broad a constituency as possible and hope that too many on the edges of both the Left and the Right are not offended. This isn’t religious bashing – it’s politics as usual.