Pandering and politics


America, being the spiritually inclined nation it is, will always have faith in the public square; the question is how much

IT'S an age-old formula to get elected president: The candidate tacks to the left (or right) during the primary season to appeal to the party base, then navigates a more centrist course in the run-up to November. Sen. Barack Obama is under full sail on just that course.

We understand. As a different candidate, Mr. Obama has different waters to cover than most. Some of his campaign's ballast - Muslim father, outrageous former Christian minister, his party's legacy of alienation from the Christian right - suggests that it would be wise to reach out to religious groups that lately have not been supportive of Democrats.

Which explains what Mr. Obama was doing last week in Zanesville, saying things that might be sweet music to religious voters. Visiting the East Side Community Ministry, he made a pitch for more government cooperation with faith-based groups, beyond the program started by President Bush with the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, one of the administration's more controversial efforts.

This is beyond understanding. Mr. Obama went so far as to say that the Bush effort had been consistently underfunded and was used to promote partisan interests.

Far from being warned off, he wants to do more. He promised a new Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships that would strengthen faith-based groups by setting up training programs to educate them in what opportunities were available.

While reaffirming that as a teacher of constitutional law he believes in the separation of church and state, and setting out various conditions in his plan that might be unacceptable to some faith-based groups - federal money couldn't be used to proselytize or discriminate and funds could be used only for secular programs - Mr. Obama sought to placate those who might bristle at the injection of yet more religion into the American body politic.

America, being the spiritually inclined nation it is, will always have faith in the public square. The question is how much. The Bush Administration has given people of all faiths and none reason for some bristling.

The age-old separation of church and state, the distillation of the founders' wisdom, has been breached. In the last seven and a half years, under the color of faith, a way has been found to divert taxpayers' money to churches. Those ineffective abstinence-only efforts toward teen sexuality are a notable example of what happens when religion becomes mixed with politics.

Of course, religious charities often do excellent work, but they also have tax-exempt status to help them do it. If Mr. Obama were keeping faith-based programs that work, that would be one thing. But his suggestion goes way beyond that.

This costly course is headed for the choppy seas that the founders wisely avoided. Sadly, it seems Mr. Obama needs his own wall of separation between pandering and policies.