WASHINGTON — Halfway to the 100-day mark, the Obama administration is treading carefully through hot-button religious issues, unveiling key policy changes late in the week and giving its revamped faith-based office a low public profile.
The Obama policies that most inflame religious groups — embryonic stem cell research, lifting restrictions on international family planning and reversing conscience protections for healthcare workers — were all disclosed on Fridays.
Even less controversial issues, like the overhaul of the White House faith-based office or where the First Family attends church, have been kept outside the public eye.
Mark Silk, a professor of religion in public life at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., said the White House may be cautious because of the campaign controversy involving Obama’s fiery former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, and the inauguration uproar over conservative Pastor Rick Warren.
“Religion hasn’t been a fabulous thing for Obama,” Silk said. “It really seems they’re a little gun-shy.”
Every modern White House has, to some extent, disclosed potentially incendiary news on Fridays, when attention spans and news staffs tend to slacken. The Obama administration denies any attempts to bury controversial news.
Still, some critics aren’t buying it.
“It must be Friday night because word leaks of yet another deadly executive order by President Obama,” Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, a frequent conservative critic of the president, said March 6 when word of the stem cell change was leaked.
Obama alluded to the “difficult and delicate balance” between enacting liberal policies and appeasing religious conservatives when he officially unveiled the stem cell order in the White House East Room on Monday (March 9).
“Many thoughtful and decent people are conflicted about, or strongly oppose, this research,” he said in televised remarks. “I understand their concerns, and we must respect their point of view.”
That’s part of why the White House has moved cautiously, said Shaun Casey, a former adviser to the Obama campaign and an ethicist at Wesley Theological Seminary. He warned against rushing to judgment so early in the new administration.
“I think they’re aware of sensitivity to these issues,” Casey said. “They’re trying to do what Obama said he would do, but not trying to do it in somebody’s face. There’s no play-book for how a Democratic president does this.”
But some observers wonder if the Friday leaks, the low profile of the faith-based office and the absence of the First Family from Washington pews means religion will play a smaller-than-expected role in the Obama administration.
Obama said during the campaign that a new and improved White House office for faith-based and local charities would be “a critical part of my administration.” But when Obama unveiled details about the program in January at the invitation-only National Prayer Breakfast, it was followed by a White House ceremony that was also closed to the media.
Silk noted that the White House has its hands full with a deep economic recession, but wonders why faith-based social service groups have not been prominently called on to help.
“Social service providers have got to be a big part of any dealing with economic hard times,” he said.
White House officials insist the faith-based office is deeply involved in domestic policy planning behind the scenes. “In just a month of operations, the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships has made unprecedented progress and is a central part of the president’s agenda,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
Nine additional members of the president’s faith-based advisory council will be named shortly, Psaki said, and the council’s quarterly meetings will be open to the media.
“They are tending to business,” Casey said of the faith-based efforts, “not looking to grab headlines. They’re going about this in a workman-like fashion.”
On a personal level, Obama has attended church services in Washington only once, a service at Nineteenth Street Baptist Church on January 18, two days before his inauguration. A White House aide said the administration is still trying to work out the logistics of sending a massive security detail to Sunday service without disrupting the
“The First Family plans on worshipping regularly throughout the coming months,” Psaki said.