Apr 29, 2009

I guess it's a little impertinent for me to issue a report card for President Barack Obama on his performance during his first 100 days in office. I'm not his teacher, and he's not my student.

But what the heck? It's a free country and everyone else is doing it. So here goes.

I'm focusing on issues with church-state implications. Somebody else can tackle the other topics.

Tax Aid to Religious Schools: A-
Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have expressed their clear opposition to voucher subsidies for religious and other private schools and their support for a strong public school system. This is a sharp contrast to the Bush administration, which lobbied relentlessly for vouchers, imposed a voucher scheme on the District of Columbia and even held a last-minute conference to push for a government bail-out of financially troubled inner-city Catholic schools.

Obama gets the minus here only because the administration has indicated it may support continued funding for students currently enrolled in the District's voucher plan. My advice to the president: Ignore the obsessive Washington Post editorial page and its right-wing public-school-hating allies and shut the thing down. Administration attention should be focused on improving D.C.'s public school system where the vast majority of District children are enrolled.

Opposition to Theocracy: A
Obama has taken dramatic steps – both real and symbolic -- to rescue America from the far-right theocratic influences that ran rampant during the Bush administration. The new president has publicly affirmed that the United States is not a "Christian nation" (or a "Jewish nation" or a "Muslim nation") but rather a nation built on individual freedom of conscience. He has even made positive references to non-believers! Gasp.

Obama has already fixed many federal government policies that were put in place to placate the Religious Right and other sectarian pressure groups. For example, he overturned the Mexico City policy and took other steps to ensure reproductive rights, he dramatically changed stem-cell policy to allow for medical and scientific breakthroughs in fighting disease and he is cancelling Bush "conscience" exemptions that give medical and pharmacy workers an unfettered right to deny help to patients on religious grounds.

Administration Appointments: A-
President Bush looked to the far right to fill many of his administration posts. President Obama is looking in a different direction. For example, Attorney General Eric Holder is likely to be a vast improvement on civil rights and civil liberties over predecessors John Ashcroft (now a teacher at TV preacher Pat Robertson's law school) and Alberto Gonzales. We suspect the Holder Department of Justice will not be shamelessly stacked with Regent graduates and other right-wing ideologues as it was under Bush.

There are lots of other great appointments, so I won't try to name them all. But I will point to one: I'm delighted to see John Berry, a talented, openly gay man as head of the Office of Personnel Management. Bush filled that slot with Kay Coles James, a former vice president of the Family Research Council and dean of Regent University's school of government. What a difference!

My only quibble here is Obama's handling of the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See. I know it's an obscure post, but it grates on my nerves that the Vatican seems to be imposing a religious test on possible appointees. News sources say the Vatican insists that the U.S. ambassador cannot be a Catholic who supports reproductive rights or presumably disagrees with church doctrine in other ways.

If true, and there are a number of media reports that suggest it is, it's an outrage. We shouldn't have diplomatic ties with a church at all. But if we're going to, the U.S. ambassador should be selected on the basis of ability, not conformity to any church's religious doctrines. (How about Andrew Sullivan? Hee, hee.)

Judicial Appointments: A
Obama is off to a great start in his selection of judicial picks. His first appellate court selection, David Hamilton of Indiana, is a solid judge with a strong record on civil liberties. If for no other reason, you can tell he's a great guy just because the Religious Right is waging a relentless war on him.

During his eight years in the White House, Bush attempted to stack the federal courts, including the Supreme Court, with right-wingers in a bid to undermine church-state separation and roll back civil rights and civil liberties generally. (Think Sam Alito, William Pryor and Janice Rogers Brown.) We hope Obama seeks dramatic change in the federal judiciary in upcoming years.

Faith-Based Initiative: Incomplete
I guess nobody does well in every subject at schools. I always struggled with math. Obama's "math" is the "faith-based" initiative. He's just not doing as well as he should in this subject.

His creation of an "Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Initiatives" is a mistake. Some of the appointees on the council are great, and some are awful. But there shouldn't be a council at all. We don't see how a presidential advisory group composed of religious leaders (and the vast majority of the council members are) can be squared with the separation of church and state.

And just as troubling, the president has delayed action on overturning the Bush administration's deplorable executive orders allowing publicly funded "faith-based" agencies to discriminate on religious grounds in hiring. Bush enthusiastically pushed for faith-based job bias and celebrated faith-based groups that use conversion and indoctrination as their preferred forms of social service. Obama needs to correct that situation, and the sooner the better.

Overall grade: Incomplete, but heading in a really positive direction.

That's my take. What do you think?