His new office of faith-based initiatives still leaves unresolved a key church-state issue.
Barack Obama was not raised in a religious household, but his work as a Chicago community organizer – funded by a Christian group – stirred up a faith that begets good works. His plan to keep a White House office for federal aid to faith-based charities carries forward a vital service, but one that could conflict with religious liberty.
It was George W. Bush who first set up a White House office to help religious groups in fighting America's difficult social problems. These "armies of compassion" are on the front lines feeding and sheltering the poor, helping with drug and prison rehab, counseling troubled families.
If given far greater access to federal funds, Mr. Bush reasoned, the groups could multiply their good deeds. And so the White House set up 12 field offices in federal agencies to encourage faith-based groups, along with secular ones, to apply for grants.
Now President Obama is expanding the service vision. He wants his renamed Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, which he announced this week, to also push summer learning for disadvantaged kids, and to help reduce abortion. His 25-member council of religious and secular leaders will also act as a sounding board on domestic and foreign policy – for instance, on Muslim outreach.
These are worthy activities, but like Bush, this president faces a conundrum over the separation of church and state.