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Obama vows $500m in faith-based aid

Analysts say bid signals shift to center

Speaking in Zanesville, Ohio, Senator Barack Obama said his plan would get religious charities more involved in solving the nation's array of social problems, including feeding the needy, helping poor children learn, and providing job training. Speaking in Zanesville, Ohio, Senator Barack Obama said his plan would get religious charities more involved in solving the nation's array of social problems, including feeding the needy, helping poor children learn, and providing job training. (Jae C. Hong/Associated Press)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Joseph Williams
Globe Staff / July 2, 2008

WASHINGTON - Democrat Barack Obama said yesterday that if elected president he would set aside more than $500 million a year in federal funds for religious organizations to help the disadvantaged, sharply expanding a Bush administration program that has strong support from evangelical Christians.

In Ohio, Obama said his plan would get religious charities more involved in solving the nation's social problems, including feeding the needy, helping poor children learn, and providing job training for those who need work. Unlike Bush's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, Obama said, his plan would not be used to "promote partisan interests" - and it would lay out far more money than Bush's program, which depends largely on a network of grants.

"The challenges we face today, from putting people back to work to improving our schools, from saving our planet to combating HIV/AIDS to ending genocide, are simply too big for government to solve alone," he said. "We need all hands on deck."

Political analysts said Obama's proposal appeared to be part of an attempt to shift to the center and recruit moderate, evangelical Christians and mainstream Catholics, two voting blocs that consistently supported Bush and have embraced Republican candidates.

If Obama succeeds in breaking the GOP's grip on those voters, it would upend a calculation that Bush and Karl Rove, his top strategist, used to great effect in 2000 and 2004. But some liberal critics suggested that Obama was outdoing the president himself by building on Bush's faith-based initiatives, which some groups have said come close to violating First Amendment protections separating church and state. Others noted that Obama's proposal does not completely ban faith organizations from discriminatory hiring practices based on religion, even while receiving federal funds.

"I find it a tad worrisome, to be perfectly honest," said Randall Balmer, professor of religious history at Columbia University. While it could pass muster under the Constitution, he said, any proposal combining religion and federal money carries "the potential for a lot of mischief."

In a statement yesterday, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, a Baptist minister and president of the Interfaith Alliance, said Bush's faith-based initiative "has been a colossal failure." He said Obama's plan - which, like Bush's, allows religious organizations to receive money directly from the government rather than through a separate nonprofit entity - needs "much stronger safeguards" to guarantee separation of church and state and to keep religious organizations from hiring only people of the same beliefs.

In his announcement yesterday, Obama said he firmly believes government and religion should remain separate, "but I don't believe this partnership will endanger that idea" as long as safeguards are in place.

Groups cannot use the money to proselytize those in need, he said, and they cannot refuse to hire someone of a different religion. Federal dollars granted directly to churches, temples, and mosques can only be used on secular programs, Obama said, adding that close monitoring will "ensure that taxpayer dollars only go to those programs that actually work." The People for the American Way, a liberal public-interest group, issued a statement yesterday applauding Obama for those safeguards, but questioning why he would allow direct government payments to houses of worship, something that "is neither necessary nor appropriate."

If Obama allows it as president, "it would create both a constitutional problem and logistical mess, pitting oversight and accountability for public funds against the autonomy of churches, synagogues, and mosques," the statement said.

Douglas L. Koopman, a political science professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., said Obama's intention to prevent discriminatory hiring will be difficult to enforce. Though the law bans hiring solely on the basis of religious beliefs, it is less clear on whether a fundamentalist Baptist organization, for example, can refuse to hire a candidate because of his or her sexual orientation, or position on abortion rights.

According to his campaign, Obama wants to streamline the process by which faith-based organizations get federal money; maintain the 11 faith-based offices currently embedded in government agencies such as the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Justice; study the effectiveness of both the charity and the government's assistance to it; and create a network between the federal faith-based offices and their local counterparts across the nation.

Obama's campaign did not give a cost for the entire program, saying only that the educational component - involving reading programs and free summer school for 1 million poor children nationwide to address the achievement gap with wealthier children - would cost about $500 million a year. That would be paid for through savings accumulated through more efficient management of surplus government property, holding down spending in the federal travel budget, and streamlining the federal purchasing process, the campaign said.

The White House's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives maintains the 11 regional offices, which help community and religious charities obtain federal grants. A press representative for the office said it does not have a formal budget; it is funded in part by the White House through grants and through budget adjustments from different federal agencies.

Political analysts say Obama's announcement is the latest attempt to broaden his appeal by moving away from the Democratic Party's liberal base as the general election nears.

John Green, a political science professor at the University of Akron in Ohio, said Obama's announcement "does suggest a move toward the center," much the way President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore did when each ran for the presidency.

Yesterday's speech also allowed Obama to talk about his Christian faith, contradicting persistent rumors that he is a Muslim, Green said. And the announcement "does fit into a broader pattern of 'values' speeches' " Obama has delivered recently, including Monday's speech on patriotism and an address on the military scheduled for later this week.

Steve Waldman, editor of Beliefnet.com, a news website dedicated to religious issues, was more skeptical in assessing Obama's announcement: "Politically, it's very bold. Substantially, it remains to be seen how dramatic it is." Obama's announcement risks alienating liberals who did not like Bush's faith-based initiatives, Waldman said, but his plan was short on details and funding specifics.

Nevertheless, Obama "basically concluded the biggest problem with Bush's faith-based organization is it didn't go far enough," Waldman said. "Obama said maybe there might have been some problems at the margins, but the biggest problem is it didn't deliver on its promise."

David Kuo, the Washington editor for Beliefnet.com and a former deputy director for Bush's Faith-Based Initiatives office said Obama builds on those initiatives with "a very smart, thoughtful plan" that intensifies the efforts to help the poor. Still, "the poor and faith-based practitioners have heard promises before," said Kuo, who left the administration and wrote a book alleging the Bush administration made empty promises on faith-based initiatives.

"The only question that matters here is, 'Can he do this? Will he do this?' " Kuo said. "This is really hard work."

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