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Kathleen Parker - 08/19/09
TAKING THE PRESIDENT ON FAITH

Oh, for those halcyon days when our biggest worry was whether the federal "faith-based" office might encourage a homeless person to find Jesus.

Remember that?

Hardly anyone talks much about the faith-based initiative begun by President Bush and expanded by President Obama. Nor was there hardly a murmur about Obama's appointee to head the program, Joshua DuBois, a 27-year-old Pentecostal preacher.

A comparison of how the media have treated the two presidents and their faith-based programs during the first six months of their administrations (2001 and 2009) is the subject of a new study by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

The findings suggest a very different standard applied to each president.

When George W. Bush introduced the concept of a faith-based office, the original vision was to help nonprofit charities get government support to help feed the hungry and house the homeless. From the reaction, you'd have thought Bush was trying to install a caliphate. Indeed, most newspaper stories focused on the blurring of church and state.

By contrast, when Obama upgraded and renamed the program - The White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships -- most stories focused on procedural questions and a new, 25-member faith-based advisory council. Few, if any, headlines questioned whether Obama might be using his faith-based office to advance liberal policies, whereas Bush was under persistent fire for allegedly pushing (horrors) a pro-life agenda.

The only issue that attracted much attention under Obama's watch - also a concern under Bush - was whether faith-based organizations receiving federal funds could make hiring decisions based on a person's religious beliefs. Obama has called for a review of the policy.

The Pew study used keyword searches to identify stories for analysis - a total of 331 newspaper articles from January to June 2001 (281) and from January to June 2009 (50).

During the Bush years, stories were 50 percent more likely to be on the front page than in 2009, and separation of church and state was the top concern in 2001.

The study takes a stab at explaining these discrepancies. One obvious explanation is that the program was new under Bush. By the time Obama rolled into town, it was a known - and not very threatening - quantity. And Obama inherited a full menu of demanding issues, on top of which he added an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Who has time to nitpick nonprofits helping the poor?

Not so fast, says Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center (and director of the Evangelicals in Civic Life program). Cromartie insists that the disparate levels of scrutiny can't be attributed only to timing and busy schedules.

"Sure, there's always a lot going on in Washington with any new administration. But can you imagine the outcry if Bush had hired a 27-year-old Pentecostal preacher to run the faith-based office and surrounded him with a 25-member advisory board made up of people largely sympathetic to his policy agenda?"

In fact, Bush appointed University of Pennsylvania political science professor John DiIulio, a Democrat, to run his program. Cromartie maintains that the greater attention to Bush was because the media were suspicious that his faith-based initiative was an attempt to install a theocracy.

Bush can be partly blamed for this perception, having once said that God wanted him to be president. He also told Bob Woodward that in making decisions about Iraq, he didn't consult his temporal father - the former president, George H.W. Bush - but yielded to a higher Father.

Obama, who, in fact, invokes Jesus in speeches more often than Bush did, according to an analysis by Politico, not only embraced his predecessor's initiative, but has given it the loaves-and-fishes treatment by expanding the mission. As described by DuBois in a video posted on the White House blog, the office's mission extends even to "figuring out the role of faith-based organizations in combating global climate change."

Why does Obama get a pass?

In part, because he's not Bush. But also, perhaps, because the media are more approving of the issues and policies Obama wants to advance.

One may argue, as Bush critics have, that the previous administration similarly tried to advance policy through its faith-based office. What one may not argue is that Obama has been treated to the same scrutiny as his predecessor.

Kathleen Parker's e-mail address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.