Obama work week one: pleases some religious activists, angers others

January 23, 2009

U.S. President Barack Obama has pleased some religiously motivated activists in his first week in office and angered others, setting the stage for “culture war battles” to come.

Obama courted voters of faith during his election and several groups were pleased by his decision on Thursday to close Guantanamo prison and bar harsh interrogation techniques of terrorism suspects that critics said amounted to torture.

“The religious community has labored faithfully for three years to end U.S.-sponsored torture. We are grateful today for this important step,” said Linda Gustitus, president of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.

Some of the most active critics of the detention policies of former president George W. Bush were drawn from the faith community and included centrist evangelicals, Catholics and Jewish groups.

But Friday’s move by Obama to lift restrictions on U.S. government funding for groups that provide abortion services or counseling abroad, reversing a key social policy of his Republican predecessor, has roiled religious conservatives. You can see our report here.

It is probably true that few of these conservatives voted for Obama in the first place and that the move was critical to maintain the support of a key Democratic Party base.

The withdrawn policy has been been called the Mexico City Policy because it was unveiled at a United Nations conference there in 1984 and became one of the centerpiece social policies of the conservative administration of former President Ronald Reagan, a Republican.
Critics call it the “gag rule” because it also cuts funds to groups that advocate or lobby for the lifting of abortion restrictions, so they say it infringes on free speech. They also say it has reduced health care for some of the world’s poorest women.
Former President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, rescinded the rule when he took office in January 1993 and his successor, Republican George W. Bush, reinstated it in January 2001.

Many conservative Christians are convinced that the next big change in abortion policy will be the passage and signing of the Freedom of Choice Act, which they claim will sweep away virtually all of the existing restictions on abortion rights such as parental notification laws.

But Obama has also pledged to expand programs to help single mothers and make contraceptives more available — policies that have won approval even from some religious abortion rights opponents because they say such action will reduce the need for abortions as well as their numbers.

Stay tuned: the story of Obama presidency and the “faith vote” may prove more interesting in some ways than that of the previous occupant of the White House.

(Photo: President Barack Obama attends the National Prayer Service/REUTERS/Larry Downing, Jan 21, 2009, USA)

No comments so far

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/