President Barack Obama may be seeking an elusive middle ground on major “culture wars” issues in the early days of his presidency. And according to some analysts that could cause headaches for Jewish church-state groups that were hoping for a sharp reversal of former President George W. Bush’s ambitious faith-based initiative.
Last week’s administration decision revamping the Bush-era faith-based office raised more questions than answers about contentious issues like job discrimination and proselytizing.
Several Jewish activists involved in the ongoing debate said the decision to punt on those explosive issues represented an effort to avoid politically costly church-state battles while it concentrates on halting the nation’s economic slide.
“It’s not No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3 on their agenda right now,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. The ADL is a strong opponent of relaxing the rules for providing government money to religious institutions, but it had nothing to say about the new administration’s faith-based rollout.
“We’re not ready to take a public position as they take some time to figure out what it’s all about,” Foxman said. “And we have no problem with that.”
Church-state separation advocates generally welcomed the administration’s decision to broaden the scope of the White House office created by Bush in 2001 — now renamed the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. They mostly approved of the religiously diverse 25-member advisory board that will help shape broad faith-based policies.
But there was unease that — contrary to statements during the campaign — Obama did not call for an outright ban on employment discrimination by groups that get federal money to operate critical services in communities around the country.
Instead, the discrimination issue will be decided on a case-by-case basis, with input from the Justice Department.
The administration also said issues involving proselytizing by groups receiving taxpayer money would be decided on a case-by-case basis. While Jewish groups remained silent on that decision, a liberal Catholic group accused Obama of “backpedaling” on his campaign promise to explicitly ban proselytizing in programs that get government grants.
In meetings with Jewish activists this week, administration officials indicated that the case-by-case procedure will continue only until the new office develops policies and protocols for dealing with a discrimination issue that is more complex than either side in the debate admits. They also indicated the new advisory board — which includes at least one prominent Jewish activist, Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism — will not weigh in on the issue, but focus instead on the question of how religious groups can be more effectively utilized as part of the nation’s economic recovery efforts.
“The big enchilada here is hiring,” said Marc Stern, co-director of the American Jewish Congress and a leading expert in church-state law. “The president has chosen not to plunge into that at the outset. That was very deliberate. He had a lot of advice from Jewish groups insisting on a blanket policy of no discrimination; Evangelicals, on the other hand, wanted no changes from the Bush policies.”
Instead, the administration chose to postpone a decision, Stern said, either out of a desire to avoid a major firefight on a highly polarized issue in the early days of the Obama presidency or because the president hopes to find some gray on an issue both sides generally see as black and white.
The American Jewish Committee, also a strong church-state separation advocate, expressed “appreciation” for Obama’s reaffirmation of the principle of church-state separation but “regret” that it did not reaffirm Obama’s promise to bar employment discrimination.
Richard Foltin, the AJC legislative director, said it is “too early” to judge the revamped faith-based program and said his group will “seek input” as policies and procedures are developed. “We want the proper balance between discrimination safeguards on one hand, and having due regard for the needs of religious organizations on the other.”
Agudath Israel of America, a leading Orthodox group and supporter of expanded faith-based funding, is also taking a wait-and-see approach.
Obama is “walking a very fine line,” said Rabbi Abba Cohen, the group’s Washington representative. “He is trying to please religious groups on both sides of the issue. We’ll have to wait and see how it plays out.”
Agudah and the Orthodox Union argue that strict limits on job discrimination effectively and unfairly bar observant religious groups from participating in government funding programs, since maintaining the religious character of those services is a key element of the social and health services they provide.
Raphael Sonenshein, a California State University political scientist, said last week’s surprising faith-based announcement reflects a broader thrust of the new administration.
“In general, they are looking for middle ground positions in the culture wars,” he said. “While they are being forced to take a hard line on bread-and-butter issues like the economy, they are looking for a third way on the big social issues. President Obama is trying to find the space where he won’t become one pole in the culture wars.”
That, he said, will be “alarming to many in the Democratic Party and confusing to others.” And he said it will pose a dilemma for Jewish groups, especially those that generally support the Democratic administration’s policies.
“What they have to decide is how hard to push back when a president they support is looking for that happy middle ground,” he said. “For them, watchful waiting is probably the best policy right now.”
The administration announced only 15 members of the 25-member panel; Washington sources say lobbying for the remaining positions has been ferocious since last week. The administration has also let it be known that members will serve only a single one-year term, providing opportunities for the broadest possible input.