Pressure to Prove Himself
When President Obama issued his executive order repurposing the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, some groups on the Left predictably decried the office as blurring the line between church and state. But conservatives and others who support the office also expressed concerns.
Some groups had feared that Obama would require faith-based organizations that receive grants to hire applicants from other faiths. But the President decided not to issue a blanket rule. Instead, the White House announced that DuBois would be working with the Justice Department to consider the hiring question on a case-by-case basis.
"That strikes me as arbitrary. How do you decide on a case-by-case basis what is equitable to all?" said Amy Black, a Wheaton College political science professor. "We don't want religious discrimination to become a cloak for other forms of discrimination."
Calvin College political science professor Douglas Koopman questioned the office's more issues-driven approach. Obama set specific issues for the office to address: reducing poverty, reducing the need for abortions, encouraging responsible fatherhood, and fostering worldwide interfaith dialogue.
"[T]hat's the cart before the horse. They should be going to the faith-based groups for the agenda, not asking them to fit into the agenda that they have created," said Koopman, Black's coauthor for Of Little Faith: The Politics of George W. Bush's Faith-Based Initiatives. "For all of his flaws, Bush respected the independence, creativity, and savvy of faith-related groups more so than what I'm reading about the Obama approach."
It will also be difficult to measure the success of some aspects of the office. How does one know if the office is really encouraging fatherhood or fostering interfaith dialogue? Former Southern Baptist Convention president Frank Page called the agenda too ambitious.
"There are many people in faith-based groups who are expecting huge amounts of money for every project they wish to implement," Page said. "It's not limitless. I don't know how success will be measured."
If the administration sets benchmarks, Page is likely to be one of the first to find out. He is one of the 25 members of Obama's newly created Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
"These are folks who are at the top of their fields—both religious and secular—who really represent diverse backgrounds and a range of political perspective," said DuBois, who will coordinate the council. "We heard a lot that in the previous office, information went out but there weren't ways to give formal feedback to the federal government, and that's what this council allows us to do."
Since Bush's office was criticized as being too politically motivated, and DuBois was hired from the presidential campaign, said Black, he may be under particular pressure to demonstrate that the office is not mere payback for religious friends' political support.
"If it's a gathering of people four times a year for productive conversation, that's one thing," Black said. "But if the director is trying to field phone calls all the time [from people] who expect direct unlimited access to him whenever they have a new idea, this could complicate his work and make it very difficult for him to focus on the essential day-to-day duties of his job."
Along with Page, evangelicals on the council include World Vision president Richard Stearns, Florida megachurch pastor Joel Hunter, and Sojourners president Jim Wallis.
"As long as I'm at the table, I have a voice," Page said. "At this point, it's the only voice for [socially conservative] evangelicals I know of."
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This article was published today with "'The Perfect Hybrid'."
Other articles on the faith-based initiatives include:
Obama Expands Faith-Based Office | The President maintains Bush's hiring policy and shapes specific priorities for the office. (February 6, 2009)
New Director Offers Vision for Faith-Based Office | Joshua DuBois tells CT how the new Office for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships is different from the Bush administration's office. (February 6, 2009)
A Promising Start for Obama's Faith-Based Office | Why we are encouraged — and still have a major concern. (February 9, 2009)
Purging the Faith from 'Faith-Based' | The first detailed history of President Bush's initiative to help the poor.
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