“A Faith-Based Fix”

A Faith-Based Fix,” The Root, 2 March 2009

Can Obama’s makeover of Bush’s faith initiative speed the economic recovery?

obama-faithThe first month of Barack Obama’s presidency brought change to all parts to Washington—none more sweeping than the passage of his American Recovery Act, designed to shock the U.S. economy out of its slump. A notable portion of the $787 billion should be coming to communities of color that have been particularly hard hit by the downturn. And one of the key vehicles for getting the money to needy citizens will be Obama’s brand-new Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

The president “wants one of the functions of that office to be the implementation of the Recovery Act,” said Melody Barnes, director of Obama’s Domestic Policy Council, where the faith office will be housed. “He’s outlined a few different ways in which he hopes the office will initially be quite helpful, one of them being the connection between the bill and the reality.”

Though the specifics of the distribution have yet to be filled in, lawmakers in heavily black districts are already expressing hope about the boost to religious-based organizations. “There are huge numbers of faith-based organizations that have nonprofit groups that are serving communities, especially in this time of crisis,” said Democratic Rep. Donna Edwards of Maryland following the Congressional Black Caucus’ first White House meeting with the president. “I think the administration has taken recognition of that.”

Speaking about the faith-based office recently, a senior White House official, who declined to be identified in order to speak more freely about the office, confirmed that “we’ve tasked the office with making sure these groups are plugged into the recovery.”

President Obama ceremoniously scrapped numerous Bush-era programs. And he criticized the Bush faith office during the campaign. But a senior adviser to the Obama campaign on religious affairs said that, from the beginning “[Obama] wanted to reform it, not destroy it.” During a speech in Zanesville, Ohio last July, he praised faith-based groups for fulfilling the Biblical mandate found in Matthew 25: “treating the least of these as [Jesus] would.” Citing his early work with the Catholic Church on Chicago’s South Side, he said, “while these groups are often made up of people who come together around a common faith, they’re usually working to help people of all faiths, or of no faith at all.” The president made much the same point at the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington on Feb. 5, saying: “Whether it’s a secular group advising families facing foreclosure or faith-based groups providing job training to those who need work, few are closer to what’s happening on our streets and in our neighborhoods than these organizations. People trust them. Communities rely on them. And we will help them.”

There are major differences between Bush’s and Obama’s faith initiatives. While Bush used the office as a key part of his political outreach to evangelicals who were a crucial part of his base, the new president aims to have the office serve far less of a political role. For one, Obama’s will be headquartered in the Domestic Policy Council, instead of as a freestanding entity within the executive branch. And while Bush put in the plumbing, so to speak—setting up a bureaucracy that made it easier for faith-based groups to compete for the federal dollar—the office seems set to play a larger policy role in the Obama White House.

Joshua DuBois, the 26-year old organizer who served as director of religious affairs for Obama’s presidential campaign, was recently named executive director of the office. He is responsible for leading the advisory council and navigating the touchiest issues—from the official White House stance on hiring practices by religious groups that receive federal funding, to the question of how best to reduce the number of abortions in the U.S. The White House admits that they are making it up as they go along, since there is no model for how a progressive Democratic president ought to run a faith-based program.

The office will be devoted to four initiatives that the president has signaled will be co-equal priorities for his first term: fighting poverty, reducing abortions, promoting responsible fatherhood and encouraging interfaith dialogue. The advisory council, which is not yet fully staffed—only 15 of the 25 proposed members have been selected—broadly reflects these priorities. Prominent Christian leaders such as Jim Wallis, head of Sojourners, the progressive protestant organization, Republican evangelical pastor Joel Hunter, and Bush’s onetime faith office head, John Dilulio, will serve, as well as younger leaders like Eboo Patel, who runs the Interfaith Youth Core, a program based in Chicago.

Of the four areas the office has chosen to tackle, poverty reduction most immediately relates to the recovery plan. The office will have representation in various government departments, among them, the Departments of Labor, Justice, Commerce, and Housing and Urban Development. “We take that community organizing part very seriously,” says the White House official. “The doors of this office are wide open.”

Melissa Rogers, a council member and attorney at the Wake Forest School of Divinity who deals with the separation between church and state, adds, “Our jobs would include getting the word out about what programs and benefits exist through the stimulus.” The comprehensive approach, plus the diverse affiliations and expertise within the advisory council, could prove beneficial in identifying organizations through which to distribute the stimulus billions.

The White House says that non-financial partnerships–with organizations that provide counseling on nutrition, financial literacy, or higher education–will be part of the mandate, and that faith-based and secular organizations will be “helping the federal government extend both information and services to those in need.” The broadened portfolio is another departure from the office under Bush: “The faith-based office was their antipoverty program; there was nothing else to it,” said advisory council member Wallis. “They’d lift up a child development center in a church and then they would close Head Start. They’d do a clinic on the west side of Chicago and then cut S-CHIP.”

The stimulus money will be the first test of a broader, more empowered faith-based crusade. Perhaps the dire economic straits will create room for ambitious outreach, unencumbered by the political baggage of the recent past.

Dayo Olopade

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