President-elect Barack Obama remains under fire from some liberals for inviting Pastor Rick Warren--an evangelical who is pro-life and anti-gay marriage--to deliver the invocation at his inauguration. Say what you will about the Rick Warren controversy, one reason Barack Obama will be sworn in on January 20 is that he courted and won the votes of more religious Americans than any other Democratic candidate in a decade. He received more votes from Catholics and Evangelicals than John Kerry, and improved upon both Kerry and Al Gore’s performances with those who attend worship services more than once a week by eight percentage points.
Obama began his faith outreach effort long before he announced his presidential run, delivering a much-discussed speech in 2006 embracing a robust role for religion in public life, and expanding on the ideas further in The Audacity of Hope. Throughout the campaign, he honed the art of showing respect for religious voters even while disagreeing with them on policy. He spoke at Warren’s Saddleback megachurch and other religious venues, even though he knew the audience was skeptical. He met with religious leaders across the ideological and denominational spectrum and granted interviews to religious media outlets. On the trail, he often recounted his decision to revise his Senate campaign website when an Illinois voter confronted him about its harsh language about pro-life advocates. “I will listen to you, especially when we disagree,” became one of his most popular refrains. His choice of Pastor Warren is his latest, and most controversial, symbolic outreach toward religious voters.
But a president does more than listen and offer symbols--he acts. In office, Obama has a chance to show his sensitivity to religious voters’ concerns, and, in some cases, advance policies that are important to them, without sacrificing Democratic principles.
Perhaps the most difficult issue area to strike this balance in is abortion. Despite the Democratic Party’s position on the issue, about 20 percent of Obama’s supporters were pro-life. Why would they support a pro-choice candidate? According to the Beliefnet poll, 87 percent of Obama’s pro-life voters believe that the best way to reduce abortion is not by criminalizing it, but "by preventing unintended pregnancies (through education and birth control) or providing financial assistance to pregnant mothers." Doug Kmiec, a prominent figure in the pro-life movement, publicly endorsed Obama and gave as one of his reasons the hope that he might deliver policies that would reduce the number of abortions. For the first time ever, the Democratic platform this year included the goal to “reduce the number of unintended pregnancies and thereby also reduce the need for abortions”--a clause that drew praise from religious voters.
Obama is already being pressed by abortion rights advocates to rescind the "Mexico City Policy," which bars American aid organizations from receiving federal funds if they support abortion in their overseas work. Religious voters were under no illusion that they were voting for an anti-abortion president. But if Obama follows the example of Bill Clinton, who rescinded it within 48 hours of taking the Oath of Office, he should make good on his stated commitment to find common ground by proposing new programs relating to health care, education, and other social welfare initiatives designed to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies in the first instance, and provide services to support mothers’ decisions to keep and raise their children, including pre- and post-natal health care, child care support, and job training and other educational services. Obama should also provide greater support for adoption programs. In such a context--with Obama actually working to make abortions rarer--he can support pro-choice policies without alienating pro-life supporters.
If abortion rights are the longstanding wedge between Democrats and many religious voters, gay rights are the most current. Here too, though, there’s an opportunity for Obama to forge compromise. Although California's Proposition 8, reversing court-imposed gay marriage rights, grabbed headlines, there are a host of other policy questions on which religious liberty and gay rights conflict. While many religious Americans oppose same-sex marriage, they are less offended by other gay rights measures. However, when they see their churches penalized for their views, these faithful feel that the expansion of gay rights is sought at the expense of their religious liberties.
Here, Obama should follow the example of Nancy Pelosi and Barney Frank, who supported religious exemptions in the Employment Non-Discrimination Act passed by the House last year. Obama should similarly ensure, through cabinet department regulations, that religious welfare agencies can still operate federally subsidized housing for the poor or elderly even while objecting to homosexuality, and that religious colleges can remain accredited even if their curriculum or dormitory policies object to homosexuality. Thus, Obama could be the first president to not only promote the expansion of gay rights, but also forge their durability by including religious protections within those very same laws. This would go a long way toward assuaging of those who view gay rights as a threat to their religious liberty.
Beyond balancing the tensions on hot-button issues, Obama will have the opportunity to promote initiatives that will benefit religious voters and communities and are not at odds with fundamental Democratic values.
For example, statistics show that religious discrimination in the workplace has steadily risen over the past decade, with workers having difficulty securing flexible scheduling for Sabbath or holy day observance, permission to wear yarmulkes, turbans or headscarves, or have other conscience issues accommodated. During the campaign, Obama endorsed carefully crafted legislation to prod employers to accommodate their employees' religious needs in the workplace. In the past, such legislation has been stymied by an unusual alliance between business lobbies like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which opposes imposing requirements on employers, and groups like the ACLU, who fear that such laws could, for example, enable a pharmacist with a religious objection to disrupt access to “morning after” pills or contraception. Obama could build on the success of such workplace religious accommodation laws in states like New York and Massachusetts, and work to pass a religious accommodation law at the federal level.
Education funding offers another opportunity for Obama. The number one "kitchen table" issue for many middle-class faith families is the cost of sending their kids to a K-12 parochial school. For all their talk about "school choice" over the past years, Republicans delivered little concrete support to parochial schools and their families while the GOP held power. While school voucher programs may be a bridge too far for a Democratic president and Congress, Obama could materially assist these families and their schools by including them in the overall education improvement plans already on his drawing board: universal pre-kindergarten, energy efficiency grants to modernize and "green" school buildings, and publicly supported teaching materials and technology. Despite concerns that such funding would violate the separation between church and state, pursuing this path would be consistent with the kinds of “supplemental assistance” programs that already exist and have passed constitutional muster (such as government-provided busing, books, computers, and special education instructors).
Finally, Obama committed during the campaign to create a White House Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. This council would be tasked not only with guiding efforts to tackle issues such as poverty and education, but, as Obama said, "help set our national agenda." Although it hasn’t come up yet during the transition, it is important that Obama follows through and creates this council. Its members should reflect not only the United States’ denominational diversity, but also its ideological diversity--including religious leaders who may oppose aspects of his agenda--and the council’s director should rank high enough to have access to the president and real impact on policies affecting religious communities. Obama should also follow through on his commitment to continue the federal government's support and partnership with faith-based social welfare organizations--and in a fashion that protects the religious liberties and character of these organizations.
In their faith-outreach efforts, Democrats were wont to quote the Book of James’ statement that “faith without works is dead.” If there were a Talmudic commentary to the Christian Bible, it might suggest that, having won the power to govern, Democrats ought now to reread this verse to say, “Without work, faith outreach will be dead.”
Nathan J. Diament is the director of public policy for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.
By Nathan J. Diament