Sen. Barack Obama promised Tuesday to embrace, but revamp, President Bush‘s faith-based initiative, in a move to the center as he courts religious voters but one that risks offending liberal voters who opposed the creation as a First Amendment encroachment.
“I believe that change comes not from the top down, but from the bottom up, and few are closer to the people than our churches, synagogues, temples and mosques,” Mr. Obama said during a campaign stop at a food bank and clothes charity run by Eastside Community Ministry in Zanesville, Ohio.
Cognizant of the pitfalls that he faced with liberal voters, Mr. Obama treaded carefully on the church-state divide. He acknowledged that “there are some who bristle at the notion that faith has a place in the public square.”
“Now, make no mistake, as someone who used to teach constitutional law, I believe deeply in the separation of church and state,” Mr. Obama said. “But I don’t believe this partnership will endanger that idea, so long as we follow a few basic principles.”
Mr. Obama reminded voters that President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore backed the concept, although it was Mr. Bush who created the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.
The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee said the Bush administration “never fulfilled its promise” because the White House underfunded and politicized the program.
“I’m not saying that faith-based groups are an alternative to government or secular nonprofits, and I’m not saying that they’re somehow better at lifting people up,” Mr. Obama said. “What I’m saying is that we all have to work together - Christian and Jew, Hindu and Muslim, believer and nonbeliever alike - to meet the challenges of the 21st century.”
The Bush administration program permits religious organizations receiving grants to hire from within their faith communities.
Mr. Obama said he wants renewed spending on faith-based initiatives, which he said he would call the Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and would provide federal grants to groups that provide social services, such as feeding the poor or helping reintegrate parolees.
His program would bar churches and other groups from using federal dollars to proselytize to clients or for any other religious purposes, and would prohibit grant recipients from religious discrimination in hiring workers or selecting clients, he said.
Across the border in Indiana, presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain said that as president he, too, would welcome help of faith-based groups, particularly in the thorny task of helping hundreds of thousands of felons integrate into society as their prison terms end.
“Many will need job training, a place to live, mentors, family counseling and much more. Beyond government, there are churches and community groups all across our country that stand ready to help even more,” Mr. McCain told the National Sheriff’s Association’s annual conference in Indianapolis.
The Republican told the sheriffs that he also will fight for better judges and called last week’s Supreme Court ruling overturning a law allowing the death penalty for child rape “jarring” and “one more obstacle to the work of law enforcement.”
Last week, Mr. Obama said he disagreed with the child rape ruling, but Mr. McCain said that if the Democrat wins the White House, the nation should expect more decisions like that: “Why is it that the majority includes the same justices he usually holds out as the models for future nominations? My opponent may not care for this particular decision, but it was exactly the kind of opinion we could expect from an Obama court.”
After speaking at the conference, Mr. McCain flew to Colombia, where he is expected to tout free trade and praise the country for its efforts to control the flow of drugs to the U.S.
Mr. Obama announced his faith-based agenda in the swing state of Ohio, where he fared poorly with religious voters and lost the Democratic primary to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton 54 percent to 44 percent. Catholics and Protestants, who made up about 55 percent of Democratic primary voters in Ohio, picked Mrs. Clinton 62 percent to 36 percent, an MSNBC exit poll showed.
Mr. Obama edged out Mrs. Clinton among other Christian voters 54 percent to 46 percent and among voters without religious affiliation 52 percent to 45 percent, according to the exit poll.
“The fact is, the challenges we face today - from saving our planet to ending poverty - are simply too big for government to solve alone,” he said Tuesday. “We need all hands on deck.”