Author’s Note: On July 1, presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama laid out a plan to overhaul the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. You can find a transcript of the speech here—it’s an important read no matter which side of the political spectrum you are on. He talks about the role faith-based organizations will have in his administration, his personal faith and his plans for the renamed President’s Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
Sen. Obama spoke to me for a few minutes following the speech. Below is the transcript of the conversation, and the audio will run on the RELEVANT Podcast this weekend. Before the speech, we asked our readers to send in questions they’d like us to ask the senator, but unfortunately, because of limited time and a really bad phone connection (he was traveling in southern Ohio at the time), we were not able to get to many of them.
Most of the questions submitted centered on Obama’s personal faith and abortion, though they also ran the gamut from war, to the economy, to social security, systemic poverty, AIDS and the environment. What we were able to discuss, as you’ll see below, centered on his proposed faith-based initiatives and his views on abortion, as it is such a hot-button issue for many conservative voters. He aimed to clarify his position on late-trimester abortions and addressed rumors surrounding his controversial vote on the “born alive” bill.
Full disclosure: So as not to be seen as giving preferential exposure to any one candidate, we have also sought an interview with John McCain. It looks like an interview will be happening with McCain in the coming weeks. Stay tuned.
—Cameron Strang, publisher
Strang: For a variety of reasons, Congress wouldn’t support President Bush’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Why do you feel they’ll support your plan?
Obama: Based on the assessment of those who actually worked on this in the Bush White House, part of the problem was that the Bush Administration had a tendency to maybe politicize the office unnecessarily. And I think that’s a mistake. I think you really have to have an attitude that this is a program designed to help all comers, not just those who supported you politically.
The second thing is that there has to be some very clear criteria and accountability in these programs. I don’t think taxpayers want their money wasted, whether it’s a faith-based or a secular program, so we’ve got to be able to document success in whatever programs are funded.
We also want to train more sophisticated groups—the big megachurch or Catholic Charities—to work with the small storefronts, or the synagogue or mosque that doesn’t have as much know-how, in applying for federal funds to be able to participate. So I think that if we make it broad, if we have clear standards and clear principles governing the program, if it’s not perceived as being an extension of politics but rather a way to ensure services get to the people who need them, then I think we can generate support from Congress.
Strang: Your plan specifically prohibits discriminatory hiring policies based on religion. Don’t you think faith-based organizations that would otherwise want to join this program would bristle at the limitation that they can’t hire a staff that reflects their organization’s values?
Obama: I think it’s important to distinguish between people who are hired as part of a church to carry out that church’s mission or ministries, or administer the church. There’s always a religious exemption there from Title VII. It’s important for us to make sure that a Christian church can hire Christians or a Jewish church can hire people of the Jewish faith. That’s different from programs that are specifically funded by the federal government and offered to the public.
I’m going to have my Council on Faith-Based Partnerships review all our policies, review relevant law and regulations, executive orders and court cases. But the simple principle is that we should not discriminate against faith-based organizations in being able to carry out terrific programs [funded] by the federal government, but we want to make sure that those programs are run in a nondiscriminatory manner.
And that’s not going to encroach on the ability of those faith-based organizations to do what they need to do when it comes to their core religious mission. They are going to be able to hire and carry out those functions of a church, or synagogue, mosque or temple, but they can also participate in federal programs as long as those are done in a way that is not encroaching on a separation of church and state, is open to the public and is not involved in proselytizing.
Strang: Not being able to proselytize through a program that receives funding—how would that be enforced?
Obama: You know, the truth of the matter is, a lot of faith-based organizations currently are doing a great job on this issue, and they recognize that when they are administering federal funds, their priority has to be to provide high-quality services and they are not interested in discriminating or proselytizing. Obviously, there may be some who try to use these funds in inappropriate ways, but I think that’s the tiny minority of those who really just want to serve their communities and do the right thing.
Strang: Based on emails we received, another issue of deep importance to our readers is a candidate’s stance on abortion. We largely know your platform, but there seems to be some real confusion about your position on third-trimester and partial-birth abortions. Can you clarify your stance for us?
Obama: I absolutely can, so please don’t believe the emails. I have repeatedly said that I think it’s entirely appropriate for states to restrict or even prohibit late-term abortions as long as there is a strict, well-defined exception for the health of the mother. Now, I don’t think that “mental distress” qualifies as the health of the mother. I think it has to be a serious physical issue that arises in pregnancy, where there are real, significant problems to the mother carrying that child to term. Otherwise, as long as there is such a medical exception in place, I think we can prohibit late-term abortions.
The other email rumor that’s been floating around is that somehow I’m unwilling to see doctors offer life-saving care to children who were born as a result of an induced abortion. That’s just false. There was a bill that came up in Illinois that was called the “Born Alive” bill that purported to require life-saving treatment to such infants. And I did vote against that bill. The reason was that there was already a law in place in Illinois that said that you always have to supply life-saving treatment to any infant under any circumstances, and this bill actually was designed to overturn Roe v. Wade, so I didn’t think it was going to pass constitutional muster.
Ever since that time, emails have been sent out suggesting that, somehow, I would be in favor of letting an infant die in a hospital because of this particular vote. That’s not a fair characterization, and that’s not an honest characterization. It defies common sense to think that a hospital wouldn’t provide life-saving treatment to an infant that was alive and had a chance of survival.
Strang: You’ve said you’re personally against abortion and would like to see a reduction in the number of abortions under your administration. So, as president, how would do you propose accomplishing that?
Obama: I think we know that abortions rise when unwanted pregnancies rise. So, if we are continuing what has been a promising trend in the reduction of teen pregnancies, through education and abstinence education giving good information to teenagers. That is important—emphasizing the sacredness of sexual behavior to our children. I think that’s something that we can encourage. I think encouraging adoptions in a significant way. I think the proper role of government. So there are ways that we can make a difference, and those are going to be things I focus on when I am president.