Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Obama Walks Religious Tightrope

In the early days of his administration, President Barack Obama has developed an unusual pattern as he talks about religion: He regularly puts nonbelievers on the same footing as religious Americans.

It is a rare gesture for a U.S. political leader. But what makes Mr. Obama's outreach especially remarkable is that it is accompanied by public displays of faith that sometimes go beyond even those of his religiously oriented predecessor in the White House.

The outreach toward both ends of the religious spectrum makes for a complicated balancing act, one that runs the risk of alienating one group, the other, or possibly both.

They just can't figure him out. They keep using the same metrics, the same methods, as usual, and the results they get confuse them.

White House events, even those without a religious theme, often begin with a prayer. And the president said he would expand President George W. Bush's outreach to faith-based organizations.

At the same time, he has taken a series of policy steps that are troubling to religious conservatives, and pledged that decisions in his administration would be governed by science. He reversed Bush policies on funding for international family-planning groups and stem-cell research, and he has moved to rescind regulations that allow health-care workers to opt out of duties that offend their beliefs.

But even when taking these stands, which would be expected of a Democratic president, he often makes a point to say that he understands the other side.

Some don't understand that there is another side.

Bishop E.W. Jackson Sr. of Exodus Faith Ministries in Chesapeake, Va., a nondenominational church, finds Mr. Obama's acceptance of nonbelievers offensive. "I believe every American should worship however they wish," he said, "however to deny that the country is fundamentally Christian in its culture and its heritage is just not true."

Boo to you.

But Mr. Obama's frequent mentions of nonbelievers stand out, said Michael Lindsay, a Rice University sociologist who studies religion and culture. In some ways, says Mr. Lindsay, it represents the continuation of a pattern in American public discourse. "The last 50 years has been a gradual evolving notion of what constitutes religious diversity," he said. First, he said, Jews were included. Later, after immigration increased from Asia in the 1960s, politicians began mentioning Buddhism and Hinduism. But rarely have atheists been included, he said.

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