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Is Obama Bringing Too Much Religion into the White House?

Obama is adding religious advisers to the executive branch and kicking off events with prayers vetted by his staff.

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"I still believe it's a good idea to have a partnership between the White House and grassroots groups, both faith-based and secular," Obama said. "But it has to be a real partnership -- not a photo-op. That's what it will be when I'm president. I'll establish a new Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The new name will reflect a new commitment. This council will not just be another name on the White House organization chart -- it will be a critical part of my administration."

Strange Bedfellows

Obama's executive order came the same day as the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual event held in the ballroom of the Washington Hilton (and whose keynote speakers have ranged from politicians to the likes of Bono and Mother Teresa). The event itself occupies a pretty strange space between religion and politics, particularly as it is organized by the shadowy organization known as The Family, an "international network of evangelical activists in government, military and business" as described by journalist Jeff Sharlet, author of The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power.

According to Sharlet, "The Family is dedicated to this idea that Christianity has gotten it all wrong for 2,000 years by focusing on the poor, the suffering and the weak. … The Family says that instead, what Christians should do is minister to the up-and-out -- as opposed to the down-and-out -- to those that are already powerful. Because if they can win those people for Christ, they win the whole deal."

This would seem to conflict with the brand of Christianity Obama has adopted, which he described at the National Prayer Breakfast as being motivated by his work as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago. "It was on those streets, in those neighborhoods, that I first heard God's spirit beckon me," Obama told his audience. "It was there that I felt called to a higher purpose -- His purpose."

Indeed, Obama's executive order focuses largely on the work done by churches and religious institutions in under-resourced communities. "The goal of this office will not be to favor one religious group over another -- or even religious groups over secular groups," he told the audience. "It will simply be to work on behalf of those organizations that want to work on behalf of our communities and to do so without blurring the line that our founders wisely drew between church and state."

However well-intentioned it sounded, the American Civil Liberties Union was quick to voice its alarm over the president's order, pointing out that the mission of the religious advisory council will also be "to advise the president and the White House faith-based office on how to distribute federal dollars, and also advise on a range of other issues, such as AIDS and women's reproductive health care" -- areas where religious views present nothing if not a conflict of interest.

"Although former President George W. Bush gave prominence to his faith-based initiative and informally consulted with individual religious leaders, even he never formed a government advisory committee made up primarily of clergy," read a Feb. 5 ACLU press release. Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, described Obama as "heading into uncharted and dangerous waters."

"There is no historical precedent for presidential meddling in religion -- or religious leaders meddling in federal policy -- through a formal government advisory committee made up mostly of the president's chosen religious leaders," she said.

The Wrong Debate?

Many people who celebrate Obama's overhaul of Bush's faith-based initiatives are doing so based on his promise that his administration will cut off funding for groups that discriminate based on background or sexual orientation. But as Americans United for Separation of Church and State points out,the order he signed "leaves the entire architecture of the Bush Faith-Based Initiative intact -- every rule, every regulation, every executive order." Groups that apply for aid will be vetted by the Department of Justice on a case-by-case basis. Along with the promised expansion of groups eligible for aid, this will make such a promise difficult to enforce.