Summer 2010, Vol. 13, No. 1

Quick Links:

Spiritual politics blog

Table of Contents

From the Editor:
The Christian Coalition Revisited

Haiti Laid Low

Snatching Babies for Jesus

Singing Against the Rubble

The GOP’s Latino Problem

Anti-Gay Bill

The Word from Kampala’s Anglicans

Losing Patience with the Vatican

Death in the Sweat Lodge

Faith-Based 2.0

Letter to the Editor



Faith-Based 2.0
by Brendan Kelly

On March 9, the Advisory Council of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships (OFANP) submitted its report to the president. Long-awaited if little discussed, the report comprised 64 recommendations with which the administration would do—who knew?

The Advisory Council represents one of a number of innovations introduced by President Obama into the office that George W. Bush created to oversee his “faith-based initiative” (including a name change that substi-tuted “Neighborhood Partnerships” for “Community Initiatives.”)

Put in charge was Joshua DuBois, the twenty-something Pentecostal minister who had directed faith outreach for Obama’s presidential campaign. Operating under the White House Domestic Policy Council, DuBois lacked the heft of those who directed the Bush office—especially John DiIulio, the University of Pennsylvania expert on faith-based social service provision who served as the office’s first director.

Indeed, it soon became clear that the object of the Bush exercise—facilitating faith-based organizations’ (FBOs) access to public money to provide social services—had become less of a priority for what now amounted to a multi-purpose White House department of religious affairs.

A new priority seemed to be avoiding controversy. The major source of tension under Bush—whether FBOs should be able to restrict hiring for government-funded jobs to members of their own faiths—was made the responsibility of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, where it disappeared from sight.

Not that anyone was paying much attention. Whereas, in the pre-9/11 opening act of the Bush administration, the faith-based initiative appeared to be the central domestic policy interest of a president known for his religious sensibilities, Obama’s rebooted version paled in significance beside economic recovery, health care, and financial reform legislation.

According to a survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, more than five times as many newspaper stories were devoted to Bush’s faith-based 1.0 than to its successor in the first six months of their respective administrations.

Perhaps because of OFANP’s lower profile and more diffuse purposes, such attention as there was gravitated toward the Advisory Council, a rainbow array of 25 religious leaders and social service honchos comprising evangelical, mainline, and Catholic Christian; Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu; plus the odd head of a secular service agency, gay activist, and church-state expert. For a year they labored remotely and face-to face, with a couple of dozen additional experts, in task forces on Economic Recovery and Fighting Poverty; Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation; Fatherhood and Health Families; Reforming the Faith-Based Office; Environment and Climate Change; and Global Poverty, Health and Development.

On February 3, the Washington Post’s Michelle Boorstein and William Wan canvassed faith-based insiders and reported that as the Advisory Council “prepares to end its first term and issue its report, some faith leaders across the ideological spectrum—including some Obama allies—say the operation may be more about window dressing than results.” The complaints had less to do with the council per se than with a sense that the office wasn’t a sufficient White House priority, and that Obama seemed less interested in consulting with religious leaders than he had been during the campaign, or in framing his policy agenda in religious terms.

DuBois himself suggested that the object of the exercise was not so much to hear from the faith community as to get it on board; he told the Post that the council’s first job was “to suggest ways to build bridges between faith-based groups and the government, not to advise the president on policy. Or as Stanley Carlson-Thies, an architect of the Bush initiative who also served on one of the OFANP task forces, characterized the Obama message: “We’re the government, doing wonderful things, YOU can come join US.”

On February 9, Post religion editor David Waters piled on, contributing a post to the Post’s Under God blog that began, “Add government funding of faith-based programs to the list of Obama administration deficiencies identified by disaffected parties on the left and the right.”

But in due course, the Post, which along with the Religion News Service had the market on mainstream media coverage pretty much cornered, decided that there might be something to the Advisory Council’s work after all. Early drafts of the report were readily available, and on February 22, Boorstein gave the “Reforming the Faith-based Office” task force a positive shout-out: “The recommendations on church-state issues broadly call for much more clarity on things like: the difference between direct and indirect aid and what are prohibited uses of direct government assistance.”

Although most of these re-commendations were unanimous (or “consensus”), the members of the “Reforming” task force could not agree on whether FBOs should be permitted to provide federally funded services in rooms that contain religious art, scripture, messages, or symbols; or on whether houses of worship should be required to form separate corporations to receive direct federal social service funds. And they were precluded by the White House from even considering the hiring issue.

Rolled out formally two weeks later, the report was not short of policy advice, ranging from the platitudinous and the unobjectionable to the consequential and the controversial. “I hope that you will look at the report and the incredibly long list of issues where we were able to find common ground,” chairwoman Melissa Rogers told the online Christian Post March 10.

Rev. Donald “Bud” Heckman, who served on the council’s Inter-religious Cooperation Task Force, told Linda Bloom of the United Methodist News Service March 12 that there were “several dozen recommendations that will mean changes in people’s lives for the better. Some of them are big—like changing how we measure and treat poverty—and some of them are small—specific techniques to bolster fatherhood and healthy families.”

Among the recommendations from the small end of the spectrum were:

•   Encourage collaboration between faith and community-based organizations, community colleges, and the private sector.

•   Incorporate supportive services with education and training opportunities, and ensure nonprofit accessibility and eligibility for Federal grant funding. 

•   Provide guidance to State and local governments on how to partner with faith-based and nonprofit organizations to retrofit and green buildings.

•   Help build social cohesion by supporting efforts to ensure that Americans have opportunities to understand America’s increasingly diverse religious society.

•   Increase participation of federal agencies in the funding of fatherhood programming, especially in areas of critical importance.

In a March 10 blog post on Huffington Post, council member Rev. Peg Chamberlain urged adoption of the council’s important poverty measurement recommendation, writing that “current federal guidelines for measuring poverty have not been updated since the 1960s and are woefully inadequate in helping assess levels of poverty in America today…a new standard is needed.” By then, however, the Commerce Department had stolen the council’s thunder, announcing on March 2 that it was augmenting the federal guidelines with a supplemental definition that included the cost of housing, utilities, child care and medical treatment along with the old cost-of-food measure.

The report did receive two cheers from Newsweek religion editor Lisa Miller, who in a March 10 column admitted that she had revised her initially skeptical view of the council’s work:

“Especially serious and provocative are the task force’s recommendations on the subject of reforming the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships itself. Though bureaucratic and unsexy, these recommendations essentially demand that the administration clarify the muddy and inconsistent ground rules for religious groups seeking federal funds for charitable work. This has long been a legislative and administrative quagmire, characterized by misunderstandings, favoritism, and legal challenges. At this moment in time, when Boston’s Catholic Charities has closed its historic adoption agency rather than take government money and so be required to adopt children to homosexual married couples, such clarification would seem necessary indeed.”

The real question, Miller said, was which of the recommendations would actually be adopted. “If the president delays,” she concluded, “he will have squandered considerable goodwill.”

At the March 9 roll-out, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius promised that the report “won’t be just a document on a shelf…this document will become an active action plan in the Department of Health and Human Services.” In the months since, it has been possible to find some evidence that it was doing more than gathering dust.

In June, for example, the White House hosted meetings on partnerships to support economic opportunity and security and on interfaith and community service involving higher education, and there was a presidential announcement of the “next steps” in his “agenda on fatherhood and personal responsibility.”

Yet as of this writing, the hoped-for executive order setting forth the church-state ground rules addressed by the “Reforming” task force had yet to be issued. And there was still no word from the Office of Legal Counsel on how the contentious hiring issue would be resolved. 


Hit Counter