ZANESVILLE, Ohio - Stepping into the thorny territory of church-state relations, Sen. Barack Obama called yesterday for more federal dollars devoted to faith-based organizations that work with the poor.
"As I've said many times, I believe that change comes not from the top down, but from the bottom up, and few are closer to the people than our churches, synagogues, temples and mosques," Obama said in a speech while touring the Eastside Community Ministry, a Presbyterian Church-based social services facility in Zanesville.
"The challenges we face today - from saving our planet to ending poverty - are simply too big for government to solve alone," he said. "We need all hands on deck."
In recent days, with the Democratic nomination in hand and the general election battle with Republican John McCain ahead, Obama has been sounding centrist themes with comments on guns, government surveillance and capital punishment. On Monday, he began a week of focusing on values by speaking about patriotism. Yesterday, he explored his relationship to religion, an area that created problems in the primary amid controversy over incendiary sermons delivered by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.
"I didn't grow up in a particularly religious household," Obama said. But .he said his experience as a community organizer in decimated Chicago neighborhoods "showed me how faith and values could be an anchor in my life."
"I came to see my faith as being both a personal commitment to Christ and a commitment to my community; that while I could sit in church and pray all I want, I wouldn't be fulfilling God's will unless I went out and did the Lord's work," he said.
Obama's outlined proposals including a new President's Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and $500 million a year to fund summer teaching programs. In his speech, Obama cited past efforts by both Democrats and conservative Republicans to combine faith and federal funding.
"Leaders in both parties have recognized the value of a partnership between the White House and faith-based groups," Obama said. "President Clinton signed legislation that opened the door for faith-based groups to play a role in a number of areas, including helping people move from welfare to work. Al Gore proposed a partnership between Washington and faith-based groups.
"And President Bush came into office with a promise to 'rally the armies of compassion,' establishing a new Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives," Obama said.
Obama's proposals would also allow religious charities that receive federal funding to consider religion in employment decisions, and that could create some problems for those who support a sharper divide between church and state. The Illinois senator said he was aware of the issues but insisted that his plans would satisfy both ends of the political spectrum.
"Make no mistake, as someone who used to teach constitutional law, I believe deeply in the separation of church and state, but I don't believe this partnership will endanger that idea - so long as we follow a few basic principles," Obama said.
"First, if you get a federal grant, you can't use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can't discriminate against them - or against the people you hire - on the basis of their religion," he said. "Second, federal dollars that go directly to churches, temples and mosques can only be used on secular programs. And we'll also ensure that taxpayer dollars only go to those programs that actually work." Even as Obama courts conservative voters with his high-profile embrace of a signature Bush program, he could invite protests from others.
"This initiative has been a failure on all counts, and it ought to be shut down, not expanded," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Michael Muskal writes for the Los Angeles Times. Wire reports contributed to this article.