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Obama's Code Words

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Journalists used to complain that George W. Bush's speechwriters slipped into his oratory phrases like America's "wonder-working power" that meant one thing to general audiences and another to evangelical supporters aware of the "wonder-working power in the blood of the Lamb." Far-fetched? Maybe, but this year Barack Obama is proving to be a master of that art.

"Economic justice" and "restoring fairness to the economy" are two of Obama's favorites. Who can oppose justice and fairness? To many Obama disciples, though, those words mandate not just equality of opportunity but a socialistic equality of result. Some in the general public would be less rhetorically transfixed if they understood the code.

Here's a more subtle example: Obama's call for nondiscrimination in religious hiring. Obama received a great press last month when he said he wanted to maintain and expand the White House faith-based initiative—except that any program receiving any federal funds could not discriminate in hiring. That sounded good to many: Who can support discrimination? To his disciples, though, the message was clear: Church-related programs will have to hire gays.

Obama acknowledged only that the requirement he proposed would be "sensitive . . . in very narrow circumstances." Narrow? A little bit of history helps here. On July 17, 2001, the House of Representatives was moving toward passage of a bill supporting the Bush faith-based initiative, but Rep. Mark Foley (who later left office after sending suggestive messages to congressional pages) proposed an amendment designed to end freedom of staffing for poverty-fighting religious groups receiving federal dollars. They would have had to hire gays, heterosexual adulterers, or others who practice what the Bible opposes.

Christian groups responded rapidly. The Family Research Council, for example, stated that "religious groups which hold certain moral beliefs—including that homosexuality is wrong—should not be forced to hire employees that don't believe that." Email alerts screamed, "CALL CONGRESS NOW." The House bill passed only after Speaker Denny Hastert said he would try later to work out a compromise. (See WORLD cover story, Aug. 7, 2001). "Later" never came, because the question of gay hiring killed the Senate bill.

Publications that are puffing Obama did not report that background. They left the impression that Obama supported a broad-based initiative. The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations asked Obama to reconsider, and the American Jewish Congress warned that his proposal put Jewish organizations at risk, but their pleas received little publicity.

A new group, the Coalition to Preserve Religious Freedom (a multi-faith alliance growing out of the Center for Public Justice), did the best job of explaining that "Obama would create an unprecedented new restriction: every faith-based organization that accepts federal funds would be stripped of its religious staffing freedom when it comes to hiring people to run the federally funded program. There has never been such a sweeping restriction in the past."

The Coalition said it was not "dragging sectarian or political considerations into a discussion that should be about human services and better addressing social needs. Senator Obama rightly calls for an 'all hands on deck' attack on poverty and social problems. For that to occur, the rules have to respect all those 'hands'—treat all those organizations with respect."

The logic is clear: Just as environmental groups do not ignore the environmental views of prospective employees, so "faith-based organizations need the same freedom to take account of convictions and mission when building their staff." But the gay lobby pumps iron, particularly in the Democratic Party.

Journalists should push Obama to drop the code and be forthright about his views concerning not only faith-based initiative groups but any organizations that receive federal benefits in any way. Should Christian colleges whose students make use of government loans be required to hire gay professors and presidents? Will churches lose their tax-exempt status if they do not submit?

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