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Obama Pledges to Expand Bush Program to Funnel Federal Money to Religious Groups

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Barack Obama has pledged to expand a controversial White House program that funnels federal money to religious charities. Many Democrats are reportedly saying it’s the most aggressive outreach to religious voters ever by the party’s presidential nominee. We speak with the Reverend Jim Wallis, founder and president of Sojourners, the largest network of progressive Christians in the United States. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Yesterday, Barack Obama pledged to expand a controversial White House program that funnels federal money to religious charities. The presumptive Democratic nominee unveiled his plan in a speech on Tuesday at the Eastside Community Ministry in Zanesville, Ohio.

    SEN. BARACK OBAMA: The fact is the challenges we face today, from saving our planet to ending poverty, are simply too big for government to solve alone. We need an “all hands on deck” approach. I’m not saying that faith-based groups are an alternative to government or secular nonprofits, and I’m not saying that they’re somehow better at lifting people up. What I am saying is that we all have to work together — Christian and Jew, Hindu and Muslim, believer and nonbeliever alike — to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century.

    And President Bush came into office with a rally — or a promise to rally the armies of compassion, establishing a new office of faith-based and community initiatives. What we saw over the last eight years is that the office has never fully completed its mission or fulfilled its promise. Support for social services to the poor and the needy have consistently been underfunded. Rather than promoting the cause of all faith-based organizations, former officials in the office have described how at times it was used to promote partisan interest.

    Well, I still believe that it’s a good idea to have a partnership between the White House and grassroots groups, both faith-based and secular, but it has to be a real partnership, not a photo op. And that’s what it will be when I’m president. I’ll establish a new council for faith-based and neighborhood partnerships. The new name will reflect a new commitment. This council will not just be another name on the White House organizational chart; it will be a critical part of my administration.

AMY GOODMAN: Barack Obama said he would set aside more than $500 million a year for the program. The Los Angeles Times reports many Democrats say it’s the most aggressive outreach to religious voters ever by the party’s presidential nominee.

Religion has been a controversial subject with Barack Obama during his campaign. He quit his church after comments by his longtime pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. He has tried to quash false reports he is Muslim.

The Reverend Jim Wallis is the founder and president of Sojourners, the largest network of progressive Christians in the United States. He is the author of a number of books. His latest is called The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious Right America. He joins us here in Aspen.

Welcome to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: Before I ask you specifically about what Barack Obama said yesterday, talk about your longtime relationship with Barack Obama. How did you first meet?

REV. JIM WALLIS: What do you mean religion is a controversial subject? I have known Barack for ten years, when he was a lonely state senator back in Illinois. And we used to have these conversations about — we were both progressive in our faith, and we were out, and the religious right was in at that point, so we talked about how that we didn’t think that, you know, tax cuts, capital gains tax cuts and endless wars overseas would be Jesus’ first priority. You know, so we had this conversation about faith in politics. We also talked about how left and right were — or the liberal-conservative debate was blocking our solving problems, and we talked — we were both older parents with young kids — we talked about raising our kids. So, we’ve been having a conversation for about a decade.

AMY GOODMAN: And what have you advised him?

REV. JIM WALLIS: Well, we just kind of talk about stuff, so I’m not a formal adviser, but we just talk about stuff. You know, it’s funny how the press is seeing this as a religious outreach. That’s the whole spin.

Well, Barack was a community organizer in the South Side of Chicago, working with congregations, so this stuff’s in him. It’s sort of his background. And he doesn’t come from a religious family. And he knows. I always say that, you know, religion has no monopoly on morality — I want to say that over and over again. He knows that. He comes from a family that was deeply moral, but wasn’t religious. Yet, he had a conversion. He became a person of faith. And he saw the difference that this can make at the grassroots level.

So he wants to, you know, have his faith and form his moral compass, but in a way that’s consistent with democracy and pluralism and diversity. We’re not a Judeo-Christian nation anymore. There are more Muslims than Presbyterians, but don’t tell the Presbyterians, they haven’t figured it out yet.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about his own religious awakening, Barack Obama’s, as you understand it, having talked to him a great deal?

REV. JIM WALLIS: Well, he gave a speech at our conference two years ago, in 2006, at the Sojourners Call to Renewal Conference, and he talked about, you know, he came to a place of really giving his life to God, as he put it. But I liked the way he said that it didn’t eliminate doubt for me.

You know, in a religion, it either leads us to an easy certainty or a deeper reflection, and we’ve had a lot of the former for a long time now, a very deep certainty that this is a Christian war in Iraq and all the rest. And I think it is better when it leads to a deeper reflection and maybe some humility, maybe more like Lincoln than George W. Bush. And I think he’s got that kind of faith. It’s personal, it’s real, but he doesn’t see that making him better or different than other people. It’s something that informs his leadership, his vision of life. But as he said yesterday, we need all hands on deck, whether they’re religious or not.

AMY GOODMAN: And what does that mean? And what is your assessment of what he has put forward?

REV. JIM WALLIS: Well, you know, I was supportive always of partnership between public and civil society. The Bush administration, though, did this in a way that I think was problematic. For example, they — it became very partisan, very politically partisan. Only the groups that were supportive of them seemed to get the money. And I think, from the start, this was kind of a substitute for sound public policy. In other words, we’re not going to have any social policy to reduce poverty, but we’ll have a faith-based office. That’s our poverty plan.

You know, and I said from the start to President Bush, that’s not going to work. It’s one thing to mobilize resources at the grassroots and have a partnership. We need everybody to jump in here. But certain things only government can do. I mean, Katrina — all this talk about faith-based organizations were there first and fastest and effective, that’s true. But churches can’t rebuild levies. They can’t provide health insurance for 47 million people.

So how do you figure out who does what best and then figure out the partnership? That’s what its potential is. And I think Barack Obama, he said this isn’t going to replace sound public policy, but this will be a partnership. In the Bush administration it became a band-aid to cover the sores of injustice, while policy made things worse.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me read to you the concern of People for the American Way, quoted in the Los Angeles Times today, greeting “with alarm Obama’s proposal to send federal money to churches, saying it is a ‘bad idea’ and a ‘tricky business.’ ‘It would create both a constitutional problem and logistical mess.’” That was Kathryn Kolbert saying, “pitting oversight and accountability for public funds against the autonomy of churches, synagogues and mosques.” The Times, Los Angeles Times, goes on to say, “Though other Democratic presidential candidates, such as Bill Clinton and Al Gore, also have embraced federal funding for faith-based charities, congressional Democrats have led the charge against Bush’s initiative.” Talk about what People for the American Way are saying.

REV. JIM WALLIS: Well, People for does a lot of good stuff. I think they’re wrong on this. Before there was any faith-based initiative — Clinton-Gore indeed did it, and Bush did, too — more than half of our tax dollars overseas go through three organizations: Catholic Relief Services, World Vision, and CARE. Two or them are faith-based. And I’ve yet to hear of any examples of proselytizing or — it’s a partnership with organizations on relief and development. So this has been done. Catholic charities for years has served lots of poor people without any kind of constitutional problems. So this was done long before there was a faith-based initiative.

What we have to do now is to involve more of the grassroots organizations, the mom-and-pop churches, the little storefront places. And I think it can be done within the framework of the Constitution. I think there’s nothing wrong with a partnership, as long as tax money isn’t being used for long proselytizing, for worship services, for, you know, religious kinds of activities.

But, you know, you’ve got a Methodist Church doing showers for homeless people, and then you’ve got a secular group down the street doing the same thing. The ministers shouldn’t not get money if — their shower money from the city to help pay for showers because they’re a Methodist church. That’s silly. Now, if you’ve got to become a Methodist before you get a shower, that’s a problem. But I think there’s ways to police that and make sure it doesn’t happen.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about what you said on ABC News, Reverend Jim Wallis, that has caused a good deal of controversy, ABC News saying before the Democrats convene in Denver, the Reverend Jim Wallis plans to urge Barack Obama to go along with adding an abortion reduction plank to the party platform. You’re quoted on ABC News saying, “Abortion reduction should be a central Democratic Party plank in this election. I’ll just say that flat out.”

REV. JIM WALLIS: You know, you know how the media likes to create stories. This was a classic example. I was interviewed by one of their producers. And my position is clear. I think between the right and the left there’s a common ground position. People who are pro-choice and those who are pro-life could agree that we have to reduce unwanted pregnancies dramatically and reduce the abortion rate. So there’s concrete — Rosa DeLauro in the Congress and Tim Ryan are talking about an Abortion Reduction Act. It doesn’t criminalize anybody. It just says, how can we reduce the numbers of abortion? That’s been my position for a long time.

I’ve talked to Republicans and Democrats about that. Barack and I have talked about that. And they acted like I was having a press conference and statement; I’m going to demand this was to going to be done. It’s part of what I think would change the debate about abortion, because every year we have this debate, and it’s an election year debate, and nothing happens in between; the abortion rate remains the same. What if we began to support low-income women, adoption, making it more friendly, less costly? Teenage pregnancy is a huge issue. We can work together to reduce unwanted teenage pregnancy. Let’s work on the problem and not have this, you know, legal battle which goes on forever and nothing ever changes. So, abortion reduction isn’t the same thing as criminalizing often a difficult or desperate choice.

AMY GOODMAN: I guess the question is, do you do it through restricting women’s rights?

REV. JIM WALLIS: Well, most of the things in the abortion-reduction language are not about restrictions; they’re about supporting low-income women. They’re about, you know —

AMY GOODMAN: Contraception, family planning?

REV. JIM WALLIS: Yeah, reducing unwanted pregnancy. They’re about all kinds of programs that will reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies and reduce abortion, so restrictions —

AMY GOODMAN: Would it reduce money for clinics that provide abortion?

REV. JIM WALLIS: Well, the language, as I understand it, from Tim Ryan and Rosa DeLauro in the Congress is not about restrictions. It’s about how we can proactively do things that can reduce abortion. I met a woman at a book signing. She says, “My daughter is graduating from Harvard. I’m so excited.” And I — because I teach there part-time, I thought she was telling me because of that. I said, “That’s great. You should be proud of her.” She says, “Yes. And when I was pregnant, though, I was a single mom and low-income, and if I hadn’t gotten food stamps and Medicaid, I would have aborted my daughter.” And a tear came out. And she says, “Tell people my story.” Now, helping her is not a restriction. So I think there’s a way we can have a conversation here to take this often divisive issue off the table for elections. I don’t think this should be a huge election issue.

AMY GOODMAN: And Barack Obama, is he open to abortion reduction plank in the Democratic Party platform?

REV. JIM WALLIS: I think, you know, I’ve, in the past, talked to Hillary Clinton about this, and Barack Obama, I think — Howard Dean — I think the Democrats are open to a new conversation that doesn’t compromise their position on a woman’s right to choose — I don’t think they’re going to do that — but how we can lead with the need for abortion reduction. But ABC saw it as a great story: a friend of Obama calls him — you know, that’s what the news does.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Jim Wallis, I want to thank you very much for being with us, founder and president of Sojourners, the largest network of progressive Christians in the United States, author of a number of books, including The Great Awakening.

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