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The other day, I visited with my father-in-law and watched the television news¯something I rarely do, but a good way of catching up with the conventional wisdom about current events. From the talking heads, I learned that Barack Obama is doing what every conventionally smart candidate does after securing his party’s nomination¯he’s supposedly moving to the center. Having appealed to ideological activists to prevail against Hillary Rodham Clinton, he’s now apparently positioning himself for a general election contest against John McCain, a man who can quite plausibly be described as center-right.

Virtually everyone who talks about Obama’s rightward move cites his recent public embrace of what he claims is a new and improved (and less ideological) faith-based initiative. Announced last week with great fanfare in Zanesville, Ohio and reiterated last weekend before the national convention of the AME Church in St. Louis, Barack Obama’s faith-based initiative is supposed to be one of the principal emphases of his domestic policy.

As a close observer of both faith-based social policy and Barack Obama, I have to confess that I’m impressed neither by the novelty of his proposals nor by their content.

In the first place, Obama has long been talking in much the same terms about a partnership between government and faith-based organizations. Already in The Audacity of Hope he remarked that “one can envision certain faith-based programs¯targeting ex-offenders or substance abusers¯that offer a uniquely powerful way of solving problems and hence merit carefully tailored [government] support.” And he has long acknowledged, as he did in his 2006 keynote address to Jim Wallis’ Call to Renewal conference, that, for example, “when a gang-banger shoots indiscriminately into a crowd because he feels somebody disrespected him, we’ve got a moral problem. There’s a hole in that young man’s heart—a hole that the government alone cannot fix.”

Obama can’t move to a place he’s always occupied.

To be sure, he doesn’t really claim that his proposals are new. Rather, in his Zanesville speech, he says that he’s picking up where Bill Clinton and Al Gore left off. It might seem, in these matters, that he’s always been in the center, not only of the Democratic Party, but of the American electorate.

But not so fast.

There is one wrinkle in Obama’s faith-based proposal¯a wrinkle that has always been there in his thinking¯that distinguishes him from all his predecessors, Republican as well as Democrat. He has always professed a professorial respect for our First Amendment, which¯he seems to say¯forbids “discrimination,” both in the provision of government-funded services, and in the hiring of those who provide them.

The former position is genuinely non-controversial. No one I know supports federally-funded confessional self-help, where a religious group uses public money to help its members (and no one else).

The latter, however, is a matter of some significant disagreement, not just in the corridors of Congress, but in the courthouses and law schools as well. Religious hiring rights are, many would argue, a matter of religious freedom. In its 1987 decision, Corporation of the Presiding Bishop v. Amos , the Supreme Court agreed, as did Congress, which exempted faith-based groups from the religious discrimination provisions of the 1965 Civil Rights Act. Indeed, the 1996 welfare reform legislation, signed into law by President Clinton, explicitly extended this exemption to faith-based federal contractors.

The argument for this exemption is that it protects the distinctive mission of religious groups as they cooperate with government. Government support doesn’t have to secularize its recipients. Government support can uphold diversity, rather than impose homogeneity. Government can respect and extend the distinctive contributions that religious groups can make to addressing our many social problems.

But when George W. Bush made the faith-based initiative a centerpiece of his domestic agenda, Democrats discovered that religious hiring rights amounted to discrimination . Such an ugly word. If only, they said, the faith-based initiative wouldn’t permit this ugliness, they’d support it. A small price to pay, perhaps, and a tough counterargument to make to a public that learns the language of non-discrimination, if not on their mothers’ laps, then certainly in their kindergarten classrooms. Legislation to expand the bipartisan achievements of the Clinton era bogged down in partisan bickering, as Republicans rightly didn’t want to pay the price their Democratic colleagues demanded.

So in proposing a faith-based initiative that excludes religious hiring rights, Barack Obama is indeed in the center of a Democratic Party that is hostile to this form of religious freedom, to this attempt to retain religious diversity while encouraging partnerships between government and faith-based organization. In taking this position, his motivation isn’t professorial, but political (if that distinction even still makes sense).

Obama’s faith-based initiative would mean that every federal dollar would in effect be a secularizing dollar, a dollar than encouraged conformity to a public bureaucratic template. An Obama Administration would cooperate with faith-based groups, but exclusively on its terms. This is a faith-“based” initiative with which the secular Left could be happy. It is most emphatically not a move to the center or even a return to the legacy of the Clinton Administration.

But that’s not the conventional wisdom. Not surprisingly, many of the talking heads on television have fallen for Barack Obama’s pretty words, and have accepted his ugly description of a characteristically American expression of religious freedom.

But rest assured: Obama isn’t moving toward the center. He’s trying to move the center toward himself.

Joseph M. Knippenberg is professor of politics at Oglethorpe University and adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs, where he contributes to the No Left Turns blog .

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