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Soul searching

Campaign 2008 | Barack Obama made headlines with his faith-based proposal, but the devilish part of his plan is in the details

Issue: "NextGen worship," July 26, 2008

Third in a series examining presidential candidates' positions on campaign issues

When the Apostle Paul wrote to first-century Christians in Corinth, he emphasized "faith, hope, and love." When Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., reached out to voters in Kentucky, he offered something similar but different: A campaign flier featuring the presidential candidate between a pulpit and a cross proclaimed: "FAITH. HOPE. CHANGE."

The language was jolting, but not surprising: Since the beginning of his candidacy, Obama has infused biblical language into campaign themes. He said in the Kentucky flier: "I won't be fulfilling God's will unless I go out and do the Lord's work." His advisors acknowledge the senator is trying to reach religious voters, including evangelicals who typically vote Republican.

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Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., wants to reach those voters, too, but hasn't been as aggressive. Shortly before Obama addressed thousands of delegates at the African Methodist Episcopal Church (A.M.E.) convention in St. Louis in July, McCain met privately with Billy Graham and his son Franklin at the elder Graham's home in North Carolina.

A campaign ad last Christmas recounted McCain's story of an unexpectedly merciful Vietnamese guard drawing a cross in the sand at the prison camp where captors held McCain during the Vietnam War. The story is one of the few faith-related anecdotes McCain offers, and the candidate seems uncomfortable publicly discussing his religious views.

But the subject isn't going away, and it surged to the forefront of presidential politics earlier this month when Obama announced that a revamped version of President Bush's faith-based initiative would be a centerpiece of his presidential agenda.

Both Obama and McCain say they support the concept behind the White House program that enables some religious organizations that offer social services to receive federal funds, and each candidate says he would continue the program as president.

But Obama's recent proposal revealed a key difference in how the candidates would implement the policy: Obama said groups that accept federal funds shouldn't be allowed to take religious beliefs into consideration when hiring employees. The senator's aides say the regulations should extend to sexual orientation as well.

Obama's critics say that such regulations could shut out many faith-based groups, especially conservative ones. For example, the policy could force Christian organizations accepting federal grants to hire non-Christians or homosexuals, even if that violates their Christian standards and goals.

McCain's campaign says the senator disagrees with Obama's departure from current policy, but McCain has offered few details about how he would manage faith-based initiatives as president. The candidate has voted for legislation to make it easier for faith-based groups to receive funds; he has also praised faith-based groups that help women facing crisis pregnancies and has said the government should find ways to assist them. McCain spokesman Brett O'Donnell has said the senator wants faith-based groups to have "at least the same standing" as they have under President Bush.

Obama's plan is more detailed: The candidate said he would pour $500 million a year into a newly named Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The plan would include creating 1 million summer jobs and educational opportunities in needy areas and would make the training process easier for faith-based groups applying for federal grants.

After praising the work of faith-based groups, Obama delivered a major caveat: "If you get a federal grant, you can't use the money to proselytize the people you help, and you can't discriminate against them-or the people you hire-on the basis of their religion."

Federal rules already prohibit using government funds to "proselytize." (Evangelicals tend to use the word "evangelize.") Faith-based groups often use federal grants for material portions of their work like providing housing, food, or clothing. Many groups don't pursue federal funds at all, saying they are holistic and cannot segment spiritual help from physical help.

(Some religious organizations get federal help through the Access to Recovery Program, a new initiative that gives vouchers for treatment to individuals who abuse drugs and alcohol. The individuals may use their vouchers at the treatment center of their choice, including religious groups. Those groups aren't bound by the same rules regarding proselytizing.)

While most federal rules prohibit proselytizing, they do allow faith-based organizations accepting grants to consider religious convictions when hiring employees. That rule isn't new with President Bush: It began with "charitable choice," part of the welfare reform Congress passed in 1996 and President Bill Clinton reluctantly signed into law. The program provided federal funding and allowed religious-based hiring for groups providing social services in a handful of areas, like job training and drug abuse treatment.

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