As we approach the one-week anniversary of the Obama administration, it is a bit early to judge the level of true change brought by the 44th president. However, it is becoming increasingly clear what is not going to change (at least for the better) in the Obama administration. With all of the euphoria of the inauguration, many supporters fought back a strange and long-lingering sensation: doubt. There was little room for doubt in the collective celebration of our first African-American president and a new course after a ruinous eight years under George W. Bush.
Yet, given his tendency to avoid fights on issues like war crimes and unlawful surveillance, Obama seems to view “change” in terms of social programs rather than legal principles. On the principle of the separation of church and state, these doubts are particularly pronounced and personified by the man who delivered the invocation at Obama’s inauguration: evangelical preacher Rick Warren.
Warren is viewed by many as an anti-gay and intolerant voice of the religious right. Obama has insisted that Warren’s much-discussed role simply reflects his desire to be inclusive and show that all views are welcomed in his administration. However, Warren represents more than a preacher with controversial religious views, but one who actively seeks to shape society along those same biblical lines.
From the Rev. Jeremiah Wright to the Rev. Warren, Obama’s choices raise a concern that he (like his predecessor) seems to gravitate toward ministers who see little dividing the pulpit from politics.
The fact is that Obama has never hidden his agreement with President Bush on the role of religion in American politics. During the primaries, he proclaimed his intention to be “an instrument of God” and to create “a kingdom right here on Earth.” To be sure, past Democratic presidents also have sought religious advisers and incorporated religious organizations into federal programs as a political necessity in a largely Christian nation.
Expanding the Bush program
Yet, the intermingling of faith and politics was one of the more controversial aspects of Bush’s tenure. The centerpiece of that effort was the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives through which Bush gave billions of dollars to religious organizations to carry out a variety of public projects.
Despite the good work done in areas ranging from drug rehabilitation to disaster relief, it came at the cost of the government’s direct subsidization of religious groups. The faith-based office has been denounced by critics as an attack on the doctrine of the separation of church and state and a reward to the administration’s base of religious activists.
Many people assumed that any Democrat would restore the secular work of government and strive to remove religion from politics. But Obama has indicated that he intends to expand, not eliminate, the faith-based programs. Indeed, he has stated that Bush’s faith-based office “never fulfilled its promise” due to a lack of funding. This “lack of funding” cost this country $2.2 billion in 2007 alone.
Obama reportedly plans to change the name from the “Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives” into his own “White House Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.” The old office would become 12 offices to carry out the expanded program. Not exactly the change that many secularists and liberals were hoping for.
Obama has assembled an informal faith-based advisory group to assist him in plans to expand the incorporation of religious organizations into government at the cost of billions of dollars each year. Warren will likely be one of those advisers.
Warren leads a fundamentalist congregation of 20,000 in Orange Country, Calif. He was a central supporter of Proposition 8, which stripped gay couples in California of the right to marry, calling such unions an affront to “every single culture and every single religion for 5,000 years.” He was criticized for a statement that many viewed as equating the legalization of same-sex marriage to the legalization of incest, child abuse and polygamy. In the ensuing firestorm, he seemed to backtrack a bit and has even indicated that he’d be willing to consider civil unions instead of same-sex marriages, but the sentiment was already out there. He also has insisted that religious people must vote against anyone who opposes abortion, calling politicians who do so, such as the new president, “Holocaust denier[s].”
This brand of activist evangelism seems to appeal to Obama the Community Activist. Despite Warren’s rigid religiosity, Obama reportedly likes him because, among other reasons, he supports anti-poverty programs. Obama’s aides have dismissed same-sex marriage as a “single issue,” and Obama has said the choice shows that he is incorporating all viewpoints into his administration. Yet, this treats all viewpoints as inherently equal and worthy of incorporation. Warren’s narrow definition of marriage echoes the objections made by ministers a few decades ago to the marriage of mixed-race couples like Obama’s parents. Would those ministers be worthy of incorporation in the administration? In the name of inclusion, Obama added a voice of exclusion.
It is a simple matter of priorities: Obama just seems to be more interested in programs than principles. He views change in more concrete terms: helping families, creating jobs and expanding the social safety net. Worthy objectives to be sure, but what about restoring the core principles that define our government?
In a program-centric rather than a principle-centric administration, Warren is a perfect fit. While infuriating for liberals, the picture with Warren — as well as the reverend’s lengthy opening prayer — played well with religious conservatives and may lay a foundation for a mutually beneficial alliance with Obama. Religious organizations can help politically and practically with the New Deal-type programs that Obama wants to implement. The entanglement of church and state is dismissed as an abstraction and distraction.
Obama’s preference for practicalities over principles is reflected in some of the people he picked for his Cabinet (Hillary Clinton at State, for one), as well as by his voting record. Obama voted to grant immunity to the telecommunication companies and extinguished dozens of lawsuits aimed at the warrantless surveillance program. Obama previously indicated that he would vote against such legislation, but again the practicalities appeared to triumph over principle. It was treated as little more than a fight over abstract privacy.
When civil libertarians denounced Obama’s vote, he simply encouraged them not to get hung up on one issue. That issue, however, was constitutionally protected privacy. The concern is that if Obama does not fight for the separation of church and state, equal protection (his most recent “one issue” flare-up) and privacy, his administration would seem strikingly like the last one, in which principles were dismissed as nave abstractions.
Obama’s approach to religion differs from Bush in one respect. The latter appeared intent on lowering the wall of separation between church and state. For Obama, this is not about principle; it’s business. Warren is a good choice because he supports these programs, and churches like his can deliver needed political and practical support for their implementation. The end, not the means, drives the policy.
Obviously, important things are to be done in a host of other areas by Obama, but it is a dangerous precedent to have another president who treats constitutional principles as something of a distraction. Just as Bush dismissed abstract principles in his war on terror, Obama seems poised to do the same in his economic war. Again, it will simply be an inconvenient time for principle.
I joined millions around the world relishing the moment Obama took the oath and gave such eloquence and hope to a besieged nation. But there is a danger of a cult of personality developing around Obama, that supporters could, in all this adoration, confuse the man with his mandate. So, when Obama put his hand on the Lincoln Inaugural Bible, I silently prayed not for a president but for principle, and that Obama will be able to tell the difference.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University and a member of USA TODAY’s board of contributors.
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USA Today — January 26, 2009