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Obama's Prayer Warriors

Can religious leaders faithfully serve the president and God at the same time?

12:00 AM, Mar 18, 2009 • By JOSEPH LOCONTE
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Consider a few items. The administration plans to open the flood gates of federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research and, in all likelihood, abortion, trampling the moral convictions of millions of ordinary Americans. A revamped faith-based initiative, which would deny the right of charities to consider religious commitment in hiring decisions, threatens to become a protocol for secularization. The president's education proposal throws hundreds of millions of dollars at failing public schools, but rejects vouchers for children from poor families to help them escape these mismanaged monstrosities and attend private religious schools. In short, much of Obama's political vision contradicts the religious ideals of his prayer partners and the constituencies they supposedly represent.

How will the ministers respond to these challenges? It's conceivable that they will quietly discourage the president from some of his policies, even as they support him in prayer. It can be argued that other presidents--including Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, and Bush--turned to favorite ministers for spiritual nurture.

They surely did, and with mixed results for the cause of Christianity in public life. One of the deep regrets of evangelist Billy Graham is that his close relationship with Richard Nixon blinded him to the president's faults in the days leading up to Watergate. During his impeachment crisis over Monica Lewinsky, Bill Clinton exploited the prestige of religious leaders and the sanctity of the pastoral relationship. With the willing help of a cohort of spiritual advisors, Clinton enlisted the biblical language of repentance and forgiveness to escape prosecution. "When compassion is evoked to excuse the abuse of power, a holy virtue is made to appear as a vice," wrote Robert Jewett in Judgment Day in the White House. "When redemption is touted for political advantages, its hope becomes hollow and dishonest."

The danger for Obama's inner circle is not only that they'll keep quiet about issues that are contentious. They now face a relentless temptation to rationalize policies that are morally dubious or offensive--to give them a religious veneer--for the sake of continued access to the president. Is Jim Wallis, a professed pro-life evangelical, likely to challenge Obama's pro-choice agenda? So far he has managed to praise the president for "breaking the symbolic cycle" of debate over abortion, whatever that means. Will T.D. Jakes play the role of prophet if the White House's faith-based initiative treats churches as pawns of the secular state? "Our hope," Jakes wrote after the election, "is in his ability to provide the medicine this nation desperately needs to rise again." That doesn't sound like the same minister who tells his flock to take responsibility for their own lives and put their trust in God. Likewise, in a recent Time magazine interview, Joel Hunter expressed not a whisper of worry about Obama's social vision. "I find it hard to believe that I'm in the inner prayer circle," he gushed. There may be a reason for his inclusion that goes beyond the legitimate need of a political leader for spiritual support. Barack Obama, after all, has made no secret of the fact that he plans to change the anti-God image of his party. Even men with good intentions, armed with faith, are not immune to the delicious intimacies of power: A short ride in Air Force One could produce more converts than a week of revival meetings. "Of all the passions," explained C.S. Lewis, "the passion for the Inner Ring is the most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things."

Joseph Loconte is a senior research fellow at the King's College in New York City and a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.