President Barack Obama signed an executive order Thursday that built on former President George W. Bush's faith-based initiatives office, upholding Bush's policy that faith-based organizations that hire from their own religious group can apply for federal grants.
Obama also laid out specific priorities for the office: poverty reduction, abortion reduction, encouraging fatherhood, and interfaith relations.
Obama tapped Joshua DuBois, a 26-year-old Pentecostal minister who led religious outreach during his campaign, to lead the office Obama renamed the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. DuBois may seek guidance from the Justice Department if questions arise about the legality of potential grant recipients.
"So, say an agency secretary reaches out to us and asks a question about a particular grant recipient," DuBois told Christianity Today. "They will say, 'Hey, can you look into this?' and start that mechanism, and then we'll provide some feedback to them or elevate it to the President if necessary."
Obama did not make the faith-based initiative an emphasis in his campaign the same way that Bush did, but he did say that he would expand the office. During the campaign, he told a crowd in Ohio that "if you get a federal grant, you can't use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can't discriminate against them — or against the people you hire — on the basis of their religion."
One member of the new office's advisory council is Richard Stearns, president of World Vision. The Christian humanitarian organization was approved for a $1.5 million grant from the Bush administration in October 2008 for the salaries of staff members running a program that helps youth avoid gangs. A memorandum said the government could bypass a provision that forbids discriminatory hiring for the positions it would finance because of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
DuBois said the office will look at hiring issues on a case-by-case basis. "[Obama has] been very clear that he thinks this program should be legal and constitutional, and he has a big-picture principle against discrimination," DuBois said. "He wasn't able to talk at that point about how it works within the context of the government, because he wasn't there yet."
Obama also set specific issues for the office to address, including reducing poverty, reducing the need for abortions, encouraging responsible fatherhood, and fostering worldwide interfaith dialogue.
Obama said at the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday that the goal of the initiative "will not be to favor one religious group over another — or even religious groups over secular groups. It will simply be to work on behalf of those organizations that want to work on behalf of our communities, and to do so without blurring the line our founders wisely drew between church and state."
Although he is generally a fan of the office, Calvin College political science professor Douglas Koopman is concerned about the office's more issue-driven approach.
"I'm thinking that'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, who coauthored 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."
Critics of Bush's office said that it was used for political purposes, but Obama signed the order behind closed doors Thursday. He also announced members of a new advisory council, including the following evangelicals: Southern Baptist Convention former president Frank S. Page, Florida megachurch pastor Joel C. Hunter, and Sojourners president Jim Wallis.
Hunter said the President greeted each person by name and said he appreciates and admires the faith leaders. Hunter told CT, "When we were in the Roosevelt Room, [Obama] said, 'This is not a political body at all. If anyone gets into that, I want to know about it.' Joshua made a statement of gratitude for the Bush administration about what they had established and that we weren't starting from square one."
Wallis said the idea of a council has been in the works since the election, but that people were called quickly this week in preparation for Thursday's announcement.
"When I disagreed with the war in Iraq, my relationship with the Bush administration stopped," he said. "We were specifically told to not hesitate to disagree with him."
Several evangelical organizations and churches are wary of applying for federal grants for fear that the government will intrude on their practices, a fear Obama alluded to in an interview a year ago.
"One of the things that I think churches have to be mindful of is that if the federal government starts paying the piper, then they get to call the tune," Obama told Christianity Today in early 2008.
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said that while the convention supports the program, it recommends that programs and churches refrain from applying for grants or setting up a separate 501(c)(3).
"I was concerned from the beginning when Bush first announced it that we keep appropriate constitutional safeguards," Land said. "The make-or-break deal for evangelicals is going to be over the hiring issue."
On a practical level, the office will likely focus on connecting smaller, urban organizations to agencies to apply for grants more than national evangelical organizations, said Wheaton College political science professor Amy Black, who authored Of Little Faith with Koopman. Both Bush and Obama have a large appreciation for faith-based organizations because of their conversions. In his speech Thursday, Obama said that he became a Christian after working in neighborhoods with other churchgoers.
"It was on those streets, in those neighborhoods, that I first heard God's spirit beckon me," Obama said. "It was there that I felt called to a higher purpose — his purpose."
The office was an important piece for Bush, but it was not a priority for his senior aides, Black said.
"It was not the centerpiece of the Bush administration that it was promised to be," Black said. "For President Obama, it is an early move, and his rhetoric is suggesting that it will be an important part of his administration. All of this is suggesting to me that he wants to put his personal imprint on it."
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Christianity Today also interviewed Joshua DuBois, the director of the new office.