One of George W. Bush's earliest controversial policies was the creation of an "Office of Faith-Based Initiatives. During the 2000 campaign, Bush argued that church-connected and faith-based non-profits were ideal allies in delivering certain social welfare policies.
From the start, liberal organizations -- and much of the media -- argued that such an office opened the door for conflicts between church and state -- especially if the federal government was playing favorites in determining who should and should not get federal aid. This tension continued throughout the Bush administration, including during the 2006 mid-term elections. Bush would resort to scripture and other religious rhetoric to underscore his broader points:
During the March 9 speech, Bush again used anecdotes to support his claim that faith-based groups are more effective than secular ones. Lifting a phrase from the hymn "Amazing Grace," he singled out Matt Enriquez, a former drug addict who attended a fundamentalist Christian Bible study program called Teen Challenge.
Noted Bush, "He was lost -- and then he was found by the people at Teen Challenge. He is now going to college."
Bush later said, "Matt is living proof. America changes not only when a soul like Matt gets saved, but the person who is involved with helping Matt also becomes a stronger and better citizen, as well."
This sort of language sent many Bush critics into conniptions.
So, will there be similar outrage if President Obama does the same?
Actually, he's already started. Not only has Obama continuing funding the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, he's expanded it. And his words in a conference call Wednesday to various leaders of faith sounded, well, familiar:
"I need you to knock on doors, talk to neighbors, spread the facts and speak the truth," he told religious leaders and reporters on a conference call that was streamed over the Web at faithforhealth.org.
"This debate over health care goes to the heart of who we are as a people," he said. "I believe that nobody in America should be denied basic health care because he or she lacks health insurance."
Some 140,000 people participated in the call, the coalition of more than 30 faith-based groups that organized the event said in a written statement.
Obama urged the listeners to reject misinformation about his plans, noting, "There are some folks out there who are, frankly, bearing false witness."
The president is using blatant religious language to rally members of the clergy to help push his health-care policy. Furthermore, the "bearing false witness" is language traditionally reserved for issues of major import: Not telling the truth with respect to a crime or sin committed, for example. Using the phrase as a club against those -- like the president -- who are engaged in a political battle -- arguably cheapens it.
Obama got even more in a religious mode later, telling rabbis:
But, the real question is: How much will groups like the ACLU and Americans United For The Separation of Church and State step forward and hold the president to account for this marshaling of religious organizations in service of a state policy? If these faith-based groups do, indeed, help out the president, will the watchdog groups -- as they did during the Bush administration -- "follow the money" to see if there is any federal "reward" in the form of grants or other types of aid for playing ball with the president?
Pray for some consistency on this one.