Religious controversy burns Obama again

Chalk up yet another religious controversy on President Obama’s record.

The furor over contraception that consumed much of this week is just one more instance of the president having been put onto the back foot at the intersection of faith and politics.

It’s a problem that previously has popped up in controversies over Israel, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and even Obama’s 2008 comments about people holding on to “guns and religion.”

“It almost appears that every time he tries to steer clear of [the intersection of politics and religion], he steps right into it,” said Susan MacManus, a professor of political science at the University of South Florida. “He’s trying not to call attention to it and then he finds himself in the middle of it.”

Announcing his proposed compromise on Friday, Obama had to emphasize again that he bore no animus toward religious people or institutions.

He referred to the principle of religious liberty and added “as a citizen and as a Christian, I cherish this right.”

Just hours later, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops rejected the plan.

He also recalled his work as community organizer in Chicago where, he said, “I saw that local churches often did more good for a community than a government program ever could.”

These overt professions of Christianity — and of sensitivity to religious people’s concerns — echoed the ostentatious reassurances that were needed to dampen the firestorm surrounding Wright that almost engulfed his 2008 presidential campaign.

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The furious response to the contraception decision caught many supporters off guard. One former administration official who has spent time with Obama said he was "a little surprised" by the administration's initial decision announced on January 20.

"He's pretty sensitive to religious concerns," the former administration official said. "He often tries to not be combative."

Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University said Obama has a blind spot of sorts for these types of situations.

While Obama has religious convictions, Jillson said, “he doesn’t have a natural feel for the depth of emotion of how some people hold their religious views.”

When Obama pondered the latest contraception decision, Jillson surmised that Obama and his aides may have looked at the polls and said “there might be a bit of a flap but we’re good here.

“But they missed the fact that the Catholic hierarchies had the emotion on their side,” Jillson said.

Obama cannot fairly be held culpable for at least some of the troubles that have afflicted him on religion. But his perceived vulnerability on the issue has led some of his would-be Republican rivals, including Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry, to accuse him of undertaking a “war against religion.”

Gingrich used that phrase during a public appearance in Florida at the end of last month, going on to say that the administration’s policy regarding contraception was “a direct violation of freedom of religion.” (He repeated the “war on religion” charge during his CPAC speech Friday.)

In doing so, Gingrich may have been making a play not just for evangelical Protestants who comprise a significant part of the GOP’s base, but also Catholics who are, as a whole, increasingly difficult to categorize politically.

Catholic voters historically voted Democratic in heavy numbers. But in recent years there has been a pronounced divide between white and non-white adherents to the faith. In 2008, exit polls indicated that Catholics overall went for Obama over Sen. John McCain by nine percentage points (54-45) despite white Catholics leaning against Obama by five points (47-52).

Obama’s own attitudes to religion are intriguing. He has made many overt professions of faith, in his books and elsewhere. (The title of his second book, “The Audacity of Hope” is derived from a Wright sermon.) 

While still a senator, he delivered a major 2006 speech in which he criticized progressives for their reluctance to engage fully with those who held more overtly religious values.

“The discomfort of some progressives with any hint of religion has often prevented us from effectively addressing issues in moral terms,” he said. “Some of the problem here is rhetorical — if we scrub language of all religious content, we forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of Americans understand their personal morality and social justice.”

Yet, at the same time, he attends church relatively rarely — he has gone 10 times in Washington during his tenure as president — and  has also sought to oppose any suggestion that one particular faith should be favored.

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Princeton professor Eddie Glaude told The Hill that Obama believes in the idea that “religion has a public role but it has to be reconcilable with democratic principles.” In other words, Glaude explained, he appreciated that faith “does animate — and ought to animate” public debates, but that religious people needed to make their case by leaning upon universal values, not sectarian ones.

Obama also has two additional complications to deal with. His own version of Christianity can seem a good deal more reserved, even intellectual, than the more visceral ‘born again’ brand with which many conservatives, in particular, are more familiar. And, as with any Democratic president, he has to be mindful that a significant portion of his base is comprised of secular citizens.

“If you don’t talk about religion at all, people are going to be calling you an atheist or making up stories about you being a Muslim. But if you do it so overtly that it looks fake, that’s a problem too,” said Laura Olson, a Clemson University professor who has written widely about religion and public life.

This week’s The Hill poll showed some of the complexity of the issue. Forty-six percent of likely voters believed the Obama administration’s attitude toward religion to be “about right”. But more than one-in-three (37 percent)  felt the administration was “too hostile.” Only 7 percent asserted that the administration was too friendly.

That kind of mix may buttress Obama’s critics on one hand. Yet his supporters counter that he is doing as good a job as can be expected, picking his way through the minefield of religion and politics.

"Thus far, President Obama has walked this line successfully, as President Bush did before him," said David Meadvin, a Democratic strategist.  "He talks openly about faith in his personal life, but has never interspersed faith and policy the way candidates like Perry, Bachmann and Santorum do. Their approach may appeal to a small sliver of the electorate, but I think most voters are turned off by it.”

Jillson predicts this won’t be “the first or the last time” Obama finds himself at the center of a culture war, especially as the presidential election heats up.

“What he probably needs is an office of faith awareness and someone who can probably run up the storm flags every once in a while,” he quipped.