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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.

Now that Bush is history, one thing we can be sure of is a return to the traditional barrier dividing church and state. Right?

Not quite.

Since taking office, President Barack Obama has raised eyebrows by mixing faith and politics in a way that has dismayed some of his secular supporters.

First there was that Jesus-laden invocation by conservative Pastor Rick Warren at the inauguration. Then, an executive order that, rather than doing anything to dismantle Bush’s faith-based initiatives, bolstered them with a new "advisory council on faith." And then, last month, U.S. News and World Report published an article with the following announcement as its title: "A New Tradition for Obama's Presidential Events: Opening With a Prayer."

"In a departure from previous presidents," reported Dan Gilgoff, writing on the U.S. News blog God and Country, "(Obama's) public rallies are opening with invocations that have been commissioned and vetted by the White House."

Apparently, not even the born-again W. indulged in such practices; as U.S. administrations go, putting a presidential stamp of approval on a prayer is a new phenomenon.

"Though invocations have long been commonplace at presidential inaugurations and certain events like graduations or religious services at which presidents are guests, the practice of commissioning and vetting prayers for presidential rallies is unprecedented in modern history, according to religion-and-politics experts."

That organized religion would find a home in Obama's White House should surprise no one who followed the race for the presidency, a period that saw Obama repeatedly assert his devotion to Christianity in the face of rumors that he was actually a Muslim. But the steps the Obama administration has taken since then go far beyond the bounds of mixing faith and politics.

"If a similar thing had been done by President Bush's White House, I guarantee you there would have been a lot of people crying foul," Bill Wichterman, deputy director of the Office of Public Liaison, under George W. Bush complained to Gilgoff.

Instead, the policy seems simply to be flying under the radar, despite its implications, which are pretty significant.

"The only thing worse than having these prayers in the first place is to have them vetted, because it entangles the White House in core theological matters," Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU), told Gilgoff.

Faith-Based Initiatives 2.0

It is not the first time Lynn's organization has expressed dismay over Obama's religious initiatives. The AU Web home page currently exhorts: "Mr. President, Please Fix Your 'Faith-Based' Program!" -- a cry over Obama's creation of an "advisory council on faith" last month.

The Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships was founded via executive order on Feb. 5 to be a new office of the executive branch. According to the order, the council "shall be composed of not more than 25 members appointed by the president from among individuals who are not officers or employees of the federal government." They will serve one-year terms "and serve at the pleasure of the president."

Heading up the office is Josh DuBois, the 26-year-old former pastor who advised Obama during the campaign. It was DuBois who reportedly campaigned heavily for the controversial decision to have Warren deliver the inaugural invocation, a move that angered many defenders of gay rights. (That said, the advisory council also includes Fred Davie, the openly gay president of the New York nonprofit Public/Private Ventures.)

In fairness, just as Obama was open about his plan to keep intact Bush's faith-based initiatives, he also made no secret of his plan to create such an office. As a candidate, he stated that he would expand the number of religious organizations eligible for federal funding. In a speech delivered on the campaign trail in Ohio last summer, Obama criticized the faith-based initiatives under Bush as "used to promote partisan interests," pledging that his would be different.