Obama praised – and pummeled – on matters of faith


President Obama stood before an audience of distinguished Christian clergy and lay leaders and took on the mantle of pastor in chief.

“I have to be careful,” he joked at the White House’s annual Easter prayer breakfast. “I am not going to stand up here and give a sermon. It’s always a bad idea to give a sermon in front of professionals.”

With that, he gave a sermon, telling the story of Christ in the garden of Gethsemane and his eventual crucifixion, a sacrifice that “puts in perspective our small problems relative to the big problems he was dealing with.”

Few presidents have spoken about their religious faith as often, as deeply or as eloquently as Obama. “We worship an awesome God in the blue states,” he declared at the 2004 Democratic convention, and he has sought since then to rebuild ties between the Democratic Party and the world of faith.

Yet no president has faced such sustained hostility over issues of faith, including Republican charges that he is waging a “war on religion,” widespread suspicion about the sincerity of his Christian faith, and the persistent legend that he is a practicing Muslim.

More moderate groups have generally seen Obama’s record on faith issues in a much more favorable light. But even some of them have been upset by his administration’s handling of certain issues, most notably the decision — later modified — to require the insurance plans of many religiously affiliated institutions to cover contraception.

“We’re very, very concerned about that,” said Galen Carey, vice president of government relations for the National Assn. of Evangelicals, which objected to the government deciding which religious groups qualified for an exemption from the rule.

At the same time, Carey expressed a nuanced view of Obama’s record. “There are some things that President Obama has done that have been helpful,” he said. “There are some policies that we definitely take exception to, but to say the president is hostile to religion, I think, would not be correct.”

Obama gets generally high marks from faith organizations for maintaining, and in some ways strengthening, the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships begun by President George W. Bush. Obama faced pressure from secular liberals to scuttle the office, which was seen as blurring the line between church and state. Instead, he used it to reach out to faith groups across a broad spectrum of theology and politics.

“The president was very bold in deciding not just to drop something that a lot of people who supported him thought was not a great idea,” said Stanley Carlson-Thies, who served under Bush in what was then called the Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives.

Under Joshua Dubois, a Pentecostal minister Obama appointed to head the office, it has expanded its focus from primarily funneling government contracts to faith-based groups to also engaging religious organizations as volunteers. It has, for instance, trained churches and other religious organizations in disaster preparedness and response. It also enlisted more than 1,000 churches in a Job Clubs program to help the unemployed.

A rather different message has emerged from the Republican presidential contest. “This president is attacking religion, and is putting in place a secular agenda that our forefounders would not recognize,” his likely Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, has said.

Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have used stronger language. Gingrich has described Obama’s policies as “the most secular anti-religious bigotry that we’ve ever seen in a president,” and Santorum said Obama’s reelection would ensure that “the practice of your faith will be dictated by the federal government.”

The Republicans were referring primarily to one or more of several decisions.

One was the contraception mandate, which particularly offended the Roman Catholic Church. Obama’s compromise — having insurance companies provide the contraception without church involvement — did little to assuage Catholic bishops or other staunch critics, in part because the new rules did not grant a full exemption to religiously affiliated institutions, such as hospitals and schools, that primarily serve people of other faiths.

Such an exemption is “way too narrow,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, which is on the liberal end of the theological and political spectrum. “I think that everyone from left to right should be deeply troubled.” Saperstein added that he was satisfied with the administration’s compromise but believed the controversy had needlessly shifted the discussion from women’s health to religious freedom.

Obama has also been criticized for a decision to deny a contract to the Catholic Church’s Migration and Refugee Services to help victims of sexual trafficking, apparently because the agency refused to counsel victims about access to contraception and abortion.

In a complaint that more secular Americans may see as hairsplitting, the president also has stirred considerable unease over his use of the term “freedom of worship” in lieu of “freedom of religion.” Conservative critics see this as evidence that Obama sees religious freedom as something confined to the relatively narrow sphere of prayer as opposed to a broader exercise of religious life.

“When you have the president of the United States referring to the freedom of religion ... not as the freedom of religion but the freedom of worship, you should get very nervous, very nervous,” Santorum said recently.

One problem with this line of reasoning is that Obama has used the phrase “freedom of religion” on numerous occasions throughout his presidency. According to an article in Christianity Today, Bush used the term “freedom of worship” far more often than Obama, without incurring criticism.

Perhaps no decision by the administration, however, has angered religious groups as much as its position in a relatively obscure case that came before the Supreme Court last year. The Hosanna-Tabor case involved an allegation that an Evangelical Lutheran school in Redford, Mich., had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by firing a teacher who was diagnosed with an apparently treatable form of narcolepsy, whose sufferers are prone to sudden sleeping spells.

Because the job was considered ministerial, the school said it could claim a “ministerial exception” from the act. Obama’s solicitor general seemed to suggest that no such exception existed in the Constitution — an idea that horrified religious leaders, even those who supported the administration’s case against the school.

The Supreme Court ruled 9 to 0 in favor of the school, with justices expressing outrage over the administration’s argument. Even Justice Elena Kagan, a former solicitor general under Obama, said she found it “amazing.”

Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who usually believes that Obama is too solicitous of religious groups, said he too found the administration’s position troubling. Taken to its logical conclusion, he said, it could require a Jewish congregation to interview Muslim and Christian clerics for a job as a rabbi.

“That one’s an outlier,” he said. “I don’t quite understand it.”

For all that, Lynn was among those who scoffed at the idea of Obama waging war on religion. “At most, it’s a pillow fight,” he said.