Last week President Obama spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast, appointed Joshua DuBois as a presidential special assistant and executive director of the renamed White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, issued an executive order expanding the role of the renamed office, created a new Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and appointed its initial members.

In this flurry of action, we see five encouraging signs, and are also left with one major concern.

One encouraging development is the appointment of Joshua DuBois as a special assistant to the President and the executive director of the faith-based office. DuBois — a 26-year-old former Pentecostal minister with a master's degree in public policy from Princeton — served on both Obama's Senate and campaign staffs, and is reportedly close to the President. He knows the American religious landscape well and has on many occasions included evangelicals in policy deliberations.

A second encouraging sign is the use of "partnership" language in both the title of the office and at numerous points in the executive order. A partnership involves two parties working together, not a relationship dominated by government.

Third, the Obama executive order gives the new office and advisory council a broad mandate that includes initiatives evangelicals can applaud. These include a fatherhood initiative — something vital, since the strongest anti-poverty measure is intact two-parent families — and a focus on reducing abortions. President Bill Clinton used to say that abortion should be "safe, legal, and rare," but once in office seemed to stress the "safe and legal" commitments, not the promise that they become "rare." Although his other early actions concerning abortion are very troubling, President Obama's call for the faith-based office to work to reduce abortions is encouraging.

Fourth, the newly created advisory council is a sign of hope. Fifteen members have been named, with up to ten more to be announced. Four of the initial members are recognized evangelicals: Richard Stearns, president of World Vision; Jim Wallis of Sojourners; Frank Page, past president of the Southern Baptist Convention; and pastor Joel Hunter of Northland Church in Longwood, Florida. The council will advise broadly on foreign and domestic policy, and will be able to hold hearings and issue reports and recommendations. It has the potential to become a major force.

Fifth, the President's actions this past week are notable for what they did not include. On the crucial issue of whether or not religious organizations receiving government funding may continue to protect their religious identity and mission by hiring only those who are compatible with the religious nature of the organization, the President did not issue a policy. His silence preserves the status quo, which is that in most federal programs, religious hiring is permitted. The executive order speaks of getting the Attorney General's opinion on such matters, and DuBois spoke about taking a case-by-case approach. Many congressional Democrats and extreme church-state separationists are no doubt disappointed.

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However, notwithstanding these encouraging signals, there is a reason for evangelicals, and others who value the faith of faith-based organizations, to be deeply concerned.

This major concern relates to the hiring issue. The status quo remains in effect but without a strong administration defense of it. Indeed, candidate Obama termed the practice religious discrimination — not an encouraging way to talk about this important religious freedom. The new advisory council may take up this issue in early hearings, seeking to determine to what extent faith-based groups that partner with the federal government actually care about the freedom. But how many ministries will want to tell federal investigators that they engage in "religious job discrimination," if this is how the issue is framed? This is a matter of constitutional principle, even if groups are leery of exercising the freedom openly. It is troubling that both of the "church-state experts" the President appointed to the investigating council are opponents of religious staffing by faith-based groups that receive federal funds.

The kickoff of Obama's faith-based initiative gives us much hope, along with our major concern. What is needed is vigilance, careful monitoring to watch how policy and practice develop. The newly formed Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance — of which one of us is the president and one the chairman of the board — is one means to this end. Last week's events dictate that parachurch ministries, whether they seek federal funds or simply are subject to federal laws, should adopt a posture of hope — and wariness.

Stephen V. Monsma is research fellow at Calvin College's Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics and the author of several studies of faith-based organizations and their nature and effectiveness. Stanley Carlson-Thies is president of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance and former staff member in the Bush White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

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Related Elsewhere:

We also follow faith-based initiative issues on the politics blog. Earlier coverage of President Obama's White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships includes:

Obama Expands Faith-Based Office | The President maintains Bush's hiring policy and shapes specific priorities for the office. (Feb. 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. (Feb. 6, 2009)