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.”
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 policy.
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.