Obama’s speech today has gotten excellent reviews, and justifiably so. But looking at it, it’s not really anything new.
Obama’s announcement today about wanting to expand President Bush’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives into what he’s calling a President’s Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships . . . is so significant. Not only is Obama showing how faith would shape policy in his administration, he’s being so bold as to criticize Bush’s faith-based program for not going far enough in opening the federal social services spigot to churches and other faith-based groups.
In effect, he’s out-Bushing George W. Bush in one of the President’s specialty areas–connecting faith and public policy.
For this, Sullivan calls Obama (somewhat flippantly) the “Christianist-in-Chief” and says that this report is “hard to disagree with.” Well, watch me.
Ever since the Great Society, government has been “opening the spigot” to churches and other faith-based groups. Groups here in southern California like Catholic Charities and the Jewish Federation routinely receive very high proportions of their budgets from government grants–sometimes even greater than 50%.
Progressives have been partnering with faith-based groups long before George Bush claimed to be born-again. The biggest difference with Bush was twofold: 1) he suggested that he would funnel money to faith-based groups for programs involving active proselytization, which is unconstitutional; and 2) he actually used the program to support groups in order to generate support for Republicans, which might have been illegal.
Obama made it very clear that he would do no such thing: he’s no more a “Christianist” than any policy wonk who contracts with faith-based social services providers to provide social service.
So what’s new? The fact that he is saying it, that he is out front with it, that he is sending a cultural signal that he embraces it. In that sense, it is both good policy and good politics. And as the Beliefnet story makes clear, it puts McCain in a box because for him to do something similar would be transparently opportunistic.
But let’s make it clear that Obama isn’t “connecting faith and public policy.” Progressives have been doing this for a long time.