Barack Obama pledged Tuesday to expand a controversial White House program that funnels federal money to religious charities, embracing a core piece of President Bush’s legacy as he tries to win over Republican-leaning evangelical voters.
The presumed Democratic presidential nominee said he would make it easier for churches and small community groups to win grants and would spend $500 million to help schools and churches run summer reading programs.
Obama delivered his speech at the Eastside Community Ministry in this key battleground state, home to many of the religious voters who backed Bush. With his proposal, the Illinois senator embraced a theme that has been closely associated with Republicans -- and one that has drawn scorn from many Democrats and civil liberties groups who believe it infringes church-state separation.
“I know there are some who bristle at the notion that faith has a place in the public square,” Obama said. “But the fact is, leaders in both parties have recognized the value of a partnership between the White House and faith-based groups.”
Obama, who worked for a Roman Catholic group as a community organizer in Chicago in the early 1980s, said the “challenges we face today -- from saving our planet to ending poverty -- are simply too big for government to solve alone.”
Mollifying some critics in his party, Obama distanced himself from some controversial aspects of the Bush program.
He signaled he would not fund church groups that make hiring decisions based on an applicant’s religion and would make sure federal money was not used to proselytize.
He also echoed critiques from two ex-officials of Bush’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives who had charged that it was exploited for partisan purposes -- to build GOP support in battleground states -- and served as a convenient “photo-op.”
Obama argued that the office “never fulfilled its promise.” He said he would rename it and ensure that small groups were not short-changed.
Both ex-officials -- former director John J. DiIulio and deputy director David Kuo -- advised Obama on his plan, and praised it Tuesday. But another former director, H. James Towey, dismissed the candidate’s criticisms.
“It could be argued that his speech was a photo-op on faith,” he said. “I’m not going to judge his motive, but he has to be careful making those kinds of accusations.”
And Obama took criticism from unusual quarters: liberal groups that want a Democratic administration to curtail the government’s engagement with religious charities.
People For the American Way greeted with alarm Obama’s proposal to send federal money to churches, saying it is a “bad idea” and a “tricky business.” “It would create both a constitutional problem and logistical mess,” the president, Kathryn Kolbert, said, “pitting oversight and accountability for public funds against the autonomy of churches, synagogues and mosques.”
Obama’s speech comes as his campaign launches what many Democrats say is the most aggressive outreach to religious voters ever by the party’s presidential nominee.
The campaign is targeting young and politically moderate evangelicals who are not excited about presumptive GOP nominee John McCain.
One new pro-Obama group, the Matthew 25 Network, run by several Democratic strategists who have pushed the party to court religious voters, began airing an ad Tuesday on Christian radio stations, playing a clip in which Obama recalls becoming a Christian.
“Kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt that I heard God’s spirit beckoning me,” Obama says in the ad. “I submitted myself to his will, and dedicated myself to discovering his truth.”
In giving Obama another chance to remind voters of his Christianity, Tuesday’s announcement carried an added political benefit for a candidate whose religious affiliation has been the subject of rumor and controversy. He quit his church after his longtime pastor made explosive comments, and he has tried to quash false reports that he is a Muslim.
Still, Obama’s announcement marked a pivotal moment in the Democratic Party’s stance on faith. Though other Democratic presidential candidates, such as Bill Clinton and Al Gore, also have embraced federal funding for faith-based charities, congressional Democrats have led the charge against Bush’s initiative.
The Bush White House used the program, and Democratic opposition, to build alliances with influential pastors -- particularly in black and Latino communities -- some of whom would campaign for the president’s reelection. Bush often mentioned the initiative in speeches to religious groups, and the White House often held events in battleground states.
Some Democrats now believe their party’s opposition to Bush’s initiative helped Republicans paint Democratic candidates as hostile to faith and have pushed to be more welcoming to evangelical voters.
“He’s definitely taking on the secular wing of his own party,” Kuo said. “If the old stereotype was that Republicans don’t care about the poor and Democrats don’t care about faith, Obama is saying, yes, Democrats care about faith.”
McCain, who has struggled to win over skeptical evangelical voters, has expressed some support for faith-based initiatives, and his campaign said Tuesday that he “recognizes their important role in our communities.”
“There’s many examples of where faith-based organizations have been very successful,” McCain said in April. “There are times when they haven’t -- so you learn the lessons. But I think the overall experiment has probably been good for America.”
Obama advisors said he would more rigorously oversee the program than Bush, whose administration has been criticized for failing to strictly monitor how religious groups have spent government money.
Obama pledged to maintain the 11 federal agency offices that distribute faith-based grants but to encourage close coordination with state and local governments that also have opened faith-based offices.
But Robert Wineburg, a University of North Carolina-Greensboro professor who has written books on the initiative, said he worried about sending more money to small, grass-roots charities.
“No business would send venture capital to shaky little organizations. You have to build them up,” he said.
Wallsten reported from Washington, Nicholas from Zanesville. Times staff writer Maeve Reston in Los Angeles contributed to this report.