President Obama when asked about the attacks from conservatives that he is waging a "war on religion" said that he finds it "puzzling," particularly because of his first job as a community organizer in Chicago, working with churches where he says he spread the "social gospel."
In an interview Monday with Des Moines television station WHO he said of the charges, "I find this very puzzling, because my first job, my first real job out of college, was working with churches in low-income communities, trying to make sure that the social gospel was made real, that people were getting help."
Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum has had a steady stump-line that Obama is waging a "war on religion" by the administration asking religious institutions and churches to provide contraception, something the Catholic Church morally opposes, as part of the health care law. The administration since walked back the mandate in what they call an "accommodation," saying insurance companies, not organizations, must provide it. That hasn't been enough to appease the Catholic church yet and the White House continues to note they had initially given up to a year to work out the details.
Santorum, a Catholic and who many see as the most socially conservative in the GOP pack, however isn't alone in the claim. Texas Governor Rick Perry, R-Texas, before he dropped out of the race in January, had used the line in an Iowa television advertisement last year. And other candidates still in the race, including Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, have used the war language -- particularly with the birth control and health care debate in recent weeks.
The contraception issue caused a political firestorm, with several conservatives claiming the administration was waging a "war on religion" and many liberals saying Republicans were waging a "war on women."
It hit a fever-pitch when radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh called Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke, who had appeared before a congressional hearing on the issue, a "prostitute" and "slut" since she was asking taxpayers to give something of monetary value for something for sex. Limbaugh later apologized.
Conservatives also charged there was a double-standard for liberals, who refused to denounce comedian Bill Maher, who had made similar statements about 2008 Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin. Maher gave a million dollars to an Obama-backed SuperPAC.
Obama has waded carefully into the issue in public, saying in a press conference last week that he thinks his party has the "better story" for women in general and that personal attacks should not be part of the political discourse. The president personally called Fluke to let her know he supported her.
About the role of faith and politics, the president said in the Tuesday interview, "When we start using religion as a bludgeon in politics, we start questioning other people's faith, we start using religion to divide, instead of bring the country together, then I think we've got a problem," Obama said.
Even though the president openly mentions and discusses his Christian faith, talks about the daily devotional he gets on his blackberry and has gone to church a handful of times in Washington, he still fights a perception that he's not a Christian.
A new poll out Monday by Public Policy Polling, a left-leaning group who says they have not asked this question in other states, found that the majority of those polled in Alabama thought he was a Muslim. Just 14 percent thought he was Christian, and 41 percent were not sure, compared with 45 percent who said they thought he was Muslim.
Obama went on to also praise faith-based groups in the interview and his administration's work with them saying that he's expanded cooperation with them on a range of issues domestically and internationally.
"You know, I think the proper role here is to recognize faith-based groups can do a lot of good out there, that that informs our values and who we are as a people."
He added, "obviously my own personal faith is very important to me."
The president was also asked about theologian Reinhold Niebuhr who said that statesman of faith often have a difficult time because they have to choose the lesser of two evils.
Obama said he can relate, and that Niebuhr is one of his favorite philosophers. "Look - we are mortal, we are sinful and in this world we're always trying to deal with the compromises, the accommodations that are required in a big, messy democracy where not everybody agrees on the same thing," Obama said.
"My job as president is to give them the tools to make sure they can succeed, to create a platform, where if you work hard you can make it here in America," he added.