Religious and nonprofit group leaders Thursday defended President Barack Obama's spiritual beliefs and his administration's support of faith-based groups, rebuffing conservative accusations that the White House is waging a war on religion.
"It's kind of silly season here. It's an election year and you are looking for any leg up," said the Rev. Joel Hunter, senior pastor of Northland Church in Orlando and a spiritual adviser who writes weekly devotionals -- passages of scripture with explanations -- for Obama and regularly prays with the president. "Anyone who knows him will not question his personal faith or devotion."
Hunter spoke on a conference call with eight religious and nonprofit leaders organized by the Rev. Dr. Gary Gunderson, senior vice president of faith and health at Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare in Memphis, Tenn. Gunderson was in Washington, D.C., last week for a meeting about faith-based healthcare efforts and said tense public debates over Obama's policies on religion and the president's personal faith motivated him to host the discussion.
"The federal government's relationship with faith-based groups is stronger than ever," said the Rev. Peg Chemberlin, president emeritus of the National Council of Churches. "Religious freedom is respected" while government partnerships with faith-based groups are expanding, she said.
The defense came as Republican presidential contenders and conservative figures have publicly questioned the president's faith. The Rev. Franklin Graham, son of famed evangelist Billy Graham, said he didn't know whether Obama is Christian. Former Sen. Rick Santorum said Obama follows a "phony" theology not based on the Bible.
The faith-based office created under President George W. Bush has expanded during Obama's presidency, broadening partnerships between the government and faith-based groups. The president's recent decision to require employers' insurance plans to cover contraception has stirred a debate about religious freedom, namely from Roman Catholic hospitals, universities and social service agencies. Southern Baptist leaders and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod have also aligned themselves on the issue with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which opposes Obama's rule.
According to a recent article in Mother Jones, Catholic religious charities have received more than $650 million during Obama's presidency from the Department of Health and Human Services, one of the largest government funders of faith-based groups. The Conference of Catholic Bishops has received $81.2 million in federal grants from the HHS during Obama's first three years, almost $10 million more than during the last three years of the Bush presidency.
Thursday's call included Thabiti Boon, fatherhood advisor to the Allan Houston Foundation; Chad Frey, director of Agape Center at Messiah College; Angel Gutierrez, vice president of Catholic Charities of Chicago; Kevin King, executive director of Mennonite Disaster Service in Lititz, Pa.; Diana Miller, executive director of Community Job Club of Stow, Ohio; and Melissa Rogers, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
All commended Obama, though some also had criticism.
Rogers, who Obama appointed to his first Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in 2009, said the administration made a mistake in its first release of the contraception mandate in January that did not allow an exemption for employers that weren't houses of worship. She said the administration's revision this month is an improvement. That revision will require religious employers that are not houses of worship to have contraception covered in their insurance, but will pass on the cost of that coverage to insurance providers.
While praising the administration for reaching out to religious and secular groups to find "more common ground," she added that it still has work to do regarding employment discrimination at religious institutions that receive federal funding. Right now, faith-based groups that get government grants are allowed to discriminate based on religion when hiring. Civil rights organizations have long pressured Obama to execute a campaign promise he made in 2008 to stop the discrimination.
The group's defense of Obama follows a stern warning issued by major religious groups earlier this week that told presidential candidates including Santorum to keep religious attacks out of the campaign. Another group of more than 100 evangelical, mainline and Catholic pastors, theologians, and denominational heads have also signed a petition to protest the use of religion as a "political weapon."
CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this article stated that Lutherans have aligned themselves with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which opposes Obama's contraception rule. This has been clarified to indicate the specific Lutheran denomination that has come out against the contraception rule.