As Barack Obama has emphasized his life as a “committed Christian” over the past year and a half, skeptics have asked for evidence of how his faith would actually influence his policies as president. Some conservative Christian activists have urged religious voters to examine Obama’s liberal stances on social issues like abortion and gay rights and to accord them more weight than his professions of faith. Faith without works, they say, is dead–and that faith without conservative social positions shouldn’t be enough to win the hearts of values voters.
That’s why Obama’s announcement today about wanting to expand President Bush’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives into what he’s calling a President’s Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, is so significant. Not only is Obama showing how faith would shape policy in his administration, he’s being so bold as to criticize Bush’s faith-based program for not going far enough in opening the federal social services spigot to churches and other faith-based groups.
In effect, he’s out-Bushing George W. Bush in one of the President’s specialty areas–connecting faith and public policy.
For Obama, who got his political start as an organizer in Chicago’s black churches, it’s difficult to argue that embracing government-sponsored faith-based initiatives is a matter of pure political convenience. John McCain, by contrast, has long held some socially conservative positions–his rigorous opposition to abortion rights, for instance–but has declined to frame such stances as motivated by his personal faith. If he were to do so now, he’d be seen as making a baldy political move.
So McCain is stuck making symbolic gestures about religion, like meeting with Billy and Franklin Graham over the weekend, while Obama is offering to strengthen a cornerstone of President Bush’s faith and politics agenda. McCain is still struggling to adopt a religious style, while Obama has begun to hammer out a substance for his well-documented religious rhetoric.