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Pulpit partisans

Politics | Prodded by President Obama and his office of faith-based initiatives, some churches are being drafted into White House policy promotion

Issue: "2010 Election: The Governors," Oct. 23, 2010

Churchgoers in hundreds of congregations across the United States may soon find fliers in their Sunday morning bulletins emblazoned with this verse from Isaiah: "O Zion, messenger of good news, shout from the mountaintops! Shout it louder, O Jerusalem. Shout, and do not be afraid." Read further and discover the good news: the advent of healthcare reform.

The bulletin inserts produced by the nonprofit PICO-People Improving Communities through Organizing-are the kind of advocacy President Obama is asking churches to undertake. But the presidential push is meeting resistance from former White House officials: They say the administration is politicizing the federal office for faith-based initiatives by using churches to promote controversial policies.

On a September conference call organized by the Health and Human Services Center for Faith-Based and Community Partnerships, the president exhorted thousands of religious leaders and organizations to extol his healthcare overhaul in their communities: "Get out there and spread the word."

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The president continued: "The debate in Washington is over, the Affordable Care Act is now law. . . . I think all of you can be really important validators and trusted resources for friends and neighbors to help explain what's now available to them."

For Jim Towey, that's disturbing. Towey, the former director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives under President George W. Bush, asked in a column for The Wall Street Journal: "Do we really want taxpayer-funded bureaucrats mobilizing ministers to go out to all the neighborhoods and spread the good news of universal coverage?"

Towey wondered what would have happened if he had used the faith-based office to promote a controversial Bush policy like the war in Iraq: "First, President Bush would have fired me-and rightly so-for trying to politicize his faith-based office. Second, the American media would have chased me into the foxhole Saddam Hussein had vacated."

Though PICO-a private advocacy network founded in the 1970s that includes some 1,000 churches-had begun programs for promoting the healthcare overhaul long before the conference call, their plans model the ideas that White House officials are promoting.

Joshua DuBois, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Partnerships, told the leaders on the call: "Get the word out there, get information out there. Make use of the resources we've described on this call: the website, door hangers, one pagers, and so forth. We've got work to do."

PICO is doing that work by offering a website full of resources on the healthcare overhaul, including fact sheets and door hangers. Gordon Whitman of PICO said that their campaign has already reached 100,000 Americans. The weekend after the White House conference call, churches in the network planned activities to reach thousands more.

Whitman notes that PICO's work on healthcare isn't new, and that though the group communicates with the Obama administration, the organization also communicated with the White House during the Bush administration.

What does seem new is Obama's approach. Though Obama used networks of churches-including "church captains"-to disseminate information during his presidential campaign, he's now using a federal office to do so. Those efforts come at a time when the first portions of the healthcare overhaul take effect, and many Americans remain opposed to the controversial law.

Stanley Carlson-Thies served in the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives under Bush and says that Obama's approach represents a striking reversal: The Bush administration emphasized how government could help faith-based groups accomplish the work they already were doing. The Obama administration is focused on how faith-based groups can help government accomplish its own goals. "The outreach thing is very troubling to me," he says. "I don't think it's appropriate."

Whether it's appropriate, it's not the first time Obama has used the strategy. Last August, the president participated in a conference call sponsored by 40 Days For Health Reform, a project led by groups like PICO, Sojourners, and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. Some 140,000 callers from dozens of churches listened as the president asked them to help pass healthcare legislation: "I need you to knock on doors, talk to neighbors, spread the facts, and speak the truth."

The president told the group that some opponents of healthcare legislation were "bearing false witness" by saying the plan represents a government takeover of healthcare-a case that many opponents continue to make by noting the hardship that government mandates pose for private care.

For now, many pastors support the president's efforts. Charles Warner, pastor of Christ Temple Apostolic Church in Sacramento, Calif., wrote an entry on PICO's blog comparing efforts to pass the healthcare overhaul to Jesus' disciples catching a great load of fish in a net that did not break: "We are bringing our big fish to land, and the first big fish on land is healthcare reform."

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