Mar 16, 2009

Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times uncovered some interesting news yesterday about President Barack Obama and his personal expressions of faith.

Since cutting ties with his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr. during the presidential campaign, President Obama has been left without a pastor of his own. Instead, he now relies on a "handful of evangelical pastors for private prayer sessions on the telephone or for discussions on the role of religion in politics," The Times reported.

The five pastors included in Obama's telephone circle are the Rev. Otis Moss, Jr., Bishop T.D. Jakes, the Rev. Kirbyjon H. Caldwell, Jim Wallis and the Rev. Joel C. Hunter.

As The Times explains, none of these pastors are affiliated with the hardline Religious Right, but "as a group they can hardly be characterized as part of the religious left either." Most take a conservative stance on abortion and homosexuality, but share President Obama's belief that faith is necessary to fight economic inequality and social injustice.

Three of the pastors — Moss, Hunter and Wallis — sit on Obama's newly created President's Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

Moss is pastor emeritus, Olivet Institutional Baptist Church, and has been active in the civil rights movement for decades. He publicly endorsed President Obama and on election day, was one of several black ministers close to the campaign who participated in a round-the-clock "prayer chain" by telephone.

Hunter is senior pastor of Northland Church, a conservative mega-church in Lakeland, Fla. Hunter was briefly chosen to head the Christian Coalition, a Religious Right advocacy group founded in 1989 by TV preacher Pat Robertson. But Hunter parted ways with the organization after the board did not want to include environmental issues such as global warming as part of its agenda.

Back in November, Hunter prayed via phone with Obama before he gave his victory speech in Denver the night of Nov. 4. He told Christianity Today that Obama gave him hope that religious conservatives would have a voice in his administration.

Wallis is president and chief executive of Sojourners, an evangelical movement in Washington that emphasizes help for the poor. Wallis has known Obama for years, and recently he has been pushing for Obama's faith-based office to continue public funding of "faith-based" agencies that discriminate in hiring based on religious beliefs.

Jakes and Caldwell were also spiritual advisers to President George W. Bush.

According to The Times, many of these pastors were introduced to Obama through Joshua DuBois, head of Obama's faith-based initiative.

It's not uncommon for presidents to receive spiritual support. As the article points out, the Rev. Billy Graham was counselor to Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George Bush. Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter both attended Washington, D.C., churches.

The Obama family has yet to join a congregation in the Washington area, in part because of logistical problems in finding a church that can deal with heightened security and accommodate the crowds that would follow the family.

Should church-state separationists be concerned about The Times report? Yes and no.

Just like every American, Obama has a constitutional right to freely practice his religious beliefs. Jakes told The Times that he was called on to pray with Obama when Obama's grandmother died in November, two days before the election. Obama is obviously free to seek out the help of Jakes and other pastors for personal prayer and this type of spiritual support.

What is of concern to us, though, is the implication that the president may be turning to this small contingent of men for advice on the "role of religion in politics" and other controversial policy matters.

Jim Wallis and Joel Hunter may think it's OK for publicly funded faith-based agencies to engage in hiring bias, but we don't. And neither does a vast array of American religious leaders. The Coalition Against Religious Discrimination, for example, includes representatives from the Jewish, Baptist, Quaker, Disciples of Christ, Unitarian Universalist, United Church of Christ and United Methodist traditions.

When it comes to personal faith, President Obama should turn to the clergy he relates to best. When it comes to sensitive matters of civil rights and civil liberties, we hope he seeks advice from a broad spectrum of Americans, including constitutional lawyers.