Just 10 months ago, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's expletive-filled sermon clips about America almost brought down Barack Obama. Now, the president-elect faces a new round of public ire because he invited the white evangelical Rick Warren to deliver the Inaugural invocation.
So, Obama has found trouble for being too close to Jeremiah Wright and for being too close to Rick Warren -- two religious leaders who stand far apart from each other.
Barack Obama also confronted a drive to portray him as a Muslim, with the not-so-subtle suggestion that he was too radical to be president. But, during the campaign Obama apologized for his aides' slights toward Muslim supporters. That is, some Americans have accused Obama of being Muslim while others have denounced him for not being supportive enough of American Muslims.
When it comes to religion in public life, Obama has caught hell from all sides.
Religion can divide people or it can draw them together. Our leaders, from city hall to the White House, face the task of governing citizens from diverse religious and non-religious backgrounds.
In practice, it is less important whether the president is Methodist (as George W. Bush is) or a member of the United Church of Christ (as Obama is) than whether he can lead a country of Mormons and Muslims, Jews and Catholics, secularists and those who call themselves spiritual but not religious.
Gov. Tim Kaine stands as an exemplar on doing this. Kaine had his greatest leadership moment when he returned from Asia to be present with the Virginia Tech community -- drawing from his own Catholic tradition while honoring the five world traditions represented among the victims and their families.
Leading a diverse and devout America requires building up the religious crossroads already present in the citizenry. Obama has sought to do this. Early in the general campaign he met with evangelical leaders from across the theological spectrum -- not because he expected to get their votes. Instead he sought to establish lines of communication. Now he can draw on those connections to try to forge areas of agreement.
Even on the Inaugural program Obama has sought to bridge racial and theological divides by including both Rick Warren and Joseph Lowery, often hailed as the dean of the civil rights movement. This is not to say, of course, that this symbolic integration of white and African-American voices makes the inclusion of Warren any easier for those Americans who believe his comments about homosexuality undermines their very humanity.
It remains to be seen if the Obama team will commit to the hard work of welcoming and negotiating religion in public life. How much easier it would be to use the White House simply to make faith groups -- especially those who supported Obama's campaign -- feel appreciated.
Such a cautious trivialization of religious groups would be a disappointment when there is real opportunity to model a more inclusive kind of leadership.
Still, who could blame Obama for being wary of religion? The outgoing president caught much grief for the apparent influence he afforded the Christian right. And every time Obama sought to reach out to religious leaders and group s-- whether African-American, evangelical, Muslim, Jewish, or even his own United Church of Christ national meeting -- he encountered controversy.
President Obama will have the opportunity to do the right thing -- to treat people of faith as more than just another interest group. He can accept the challenge, consistent with his campaign's message, of building faith bridges. How can he make it happen?
First, his administration's religious outreach should extend across the spectrum. President Clinton directed his staff to coordinate religious-outreach breakfasts that included Christian conservatives who disagreed with him. Obama has the chance to reach even more broadly and creatively to all traditions from the left, right, and center. His schedulers should take him to religious and cultural centers across the country and the religious gamut.
Second, he should charge one of his close advisers to keep religious diversity on his radar screen. What are the impacts of policy X on American Muslims? Evangelicals? Catholics? Jews? His chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, or another key adviser, should pose such questions relentlessly. Hiring a senior adviser or special assistant focused expressly on religious affairs could help the senior staff to "think religion" across the myriad issues and offices.
Third, his leadership team should establish crash courses in religious literacy for all senior White House staff members. The orientation for new White House employees should be revised, ideally in consultation with religion scholars, to design fitting programs. The focus would not be on dogma, of course, but on the public practices and possible accommodations of religious citizens.
Fourth, he can work with American communities on international issues. One of the most fundamental agenda items for his domestic and foreign policy is to help all Americans clearly distinguish the campaign against al-Qaida from animosity against the 1.4 billion adherents of Islam. He can engage the millions of U.S. Muslims and U.S. Jews as potential bridge figures between America and the Middle East.
Fifth, Obama must be prepared to invoke a broad and deep American civil religion, especially in times of crisis. He and his team must use words and symbolic acts that appeal to citizens' higher motives. From the very start of the administration, his staff should turn to leaders in religious communities and prepare together for moments of celebration and potential crisis.
Finally, in his speeches and public comments, he should refer to the diverse religious communities that comprise America today. At no single event can he name, as if it were a laundry list, all of the faiths of America. But over time, the president should acknowledge that the country is a religious and cultural crossroads. His own words and actions can indeed shape such a public culture.
Douglas A. Hicks is an associate professor in the Jepson School of Leadership Studies and executive director of the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement at the University of Richmond. He is author of the new book "With God on All Sides: Leadership in a Devout and Diverse America." See www.richmond.edu/~dhicks.