Barack Obama and Church-State Separation

Barack Obama and Church-State Separation March 25, 2009

Although the first hundred days of President Barack Obama’s term haven’t ended yet, this seems like a good time to examine his record in office so far and see how it’s lived up to his own campaign pledges and to freethinkers’ expectations. These past few months have been a roller-coaster ride – from the exhilaration of Election Day to the disgraceful selection of homophobic bigot Rick Warren to preside at the inauguration. Now that the euphoria has faded and the Obama administration is getting down to the nitty-gritty of governing, we can begin a more sober evaluation of their politics.

Overall, I’d say my impression of the Obama administration is mixed, trending slightly toward positive. He’s worlds better than George W. Bush, though he’s no bright-blue progressive champion, both of which were fairly obvious from his campaign. Without a doubt, he’s done plenty that he deserves praise for: I applaud the numerous green provisions of the economic stimulus bill; his raising of the fuel efficiency standards for cars; and his signing of the pro-equal-pay Lilly Ledbetter Act and the children’s healthcare program S-CHIP. There’s reason for cautious optimism regarding his positions on the drawdown from Iraq, the closing of Guantanamo and the ending of torture and illegal detention, but while some progress has been made, much more still needs to be done. In some ways, he’s also been a letdown: my most severe disappointment is that the Obama administration has continued the Bush-Cheney position in arguing that “state secrets” serves as a blanket immunity for the government from anyone charging them with violating any law.

In issues that specifically relate to church-state separation and secularism, Obama’s record is again mixed. He’s reversed George W. Bush’s “global gag rule” which prohibits international aid agencies from helping women obtain access to abortion, lifted restrictions on embryonic stem cell research, and directed our ambassador to the U.N. to endorse a resolution calling for the decriminalization of homosexuality. All of these are very good things, particularly in light of the outrage that all three of them have roused from the religious right. He even chastised those who use faith as “an excuse for prejudice and intolerance” at the National Prayer Breakfast and reminded attendees of his upbringing by a freethinking mother, which had to have taken guts.

And yet here, too, Obama has been a disappointment in some ways. He’s instituted a troubling practice of prayer before nearly all presidential events, which even George W. Bush didn’t do; worse, the White House is vetting the prayers in advance, implicitly making the religious speakers a mouthpiece for the government. But Obama’s worst decision, by far, relating to church-state separation is his breaking of this very clear campaign promise:

First, if you get a federal grant, you can’t use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can’t discriminate against them – or against the people you hire – on the basis of their religion. Second, federal dollars that go directly to churches, temples, and mosques can only be used on secular programs.

Instead of living up to his word, President Obama is, so far, continuing the White House “faith-based” initiative that permits religious charities funded by taxpayer dollars to proselytize and to discriminate in hiring on the basis of religion. This is a major, serious letdown and a clear violation of the articulate understanding of church-state separation he showed during the campaign. It’s astonishing that we, as Americans, are paying taxes to support religious organizations that openly discriminate against us for having the “wrong” beliefs. Any job paid for by the government should be open to all qualified applicants, not merely those who fit a certain set of prejudices.

This action of Obama’s continues a troubling pattern seen during the campaign and the inauguration: even though his views are generally progressive, he’s far too willing to cozy up to the religious right – not just to bring them to the table (I have no objection to them voicing their views), but to grant them special access and special privileges. For reasons I cannot fathom, Obama evidently does not believe that his primary responsibility should be to his progressive allies who worked so hard to get him elected – and whose support he will need to pass major legislation – but rather, to appeasing the hate-spewing religious right who regard him as a secret Muslim terrorist and an enemy of America, and who will fight his legislative agenda no matter how many bones he throws them.

Compared to the open Christian supremacy of the Bush administration, President Obama’s actions are an improvement. But we must not fall into the trap of excusing his faults or overlooking our disagreements just because he accomplishes good things in other areas. Progressives and freethinkers must continue to apply pressure, correcting him where he errs and giving political cover where the mood of the majority is not as progressive as his plans are.

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