Obama's Faith-Based Office Gets Down to Work

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Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

President Barack Obama bows his head in prayer during the dedication of Abraham Lincoln Hall at the National Defense University at Fort McNair, Washington.

At this rate, Barack Obama may need to start his own version of the old Stephen Colbert "This Week in God" segment. On Monday, the President held forth to the Turkish Parliament on the contributions of Muslim-Americans and noted that he had Muslims in his family. Later that same day, Obama prompted cheers from secularists when he declared, "One of the great strengths of the United States is...we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation; we consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values." That was just Obama's warm-up. On Thursday evening, the First Family will observe the second night of Passover by hosting family and friends for the first White House seder. And at the end of this Holy Week in Christianity, they will celebrate Easter — though exactly where has yet to be determined.

But perhaps the loudest message the White House sent about religion this week took place without the President in attendance. Over the course of two days, the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships gathered more than 60 religious leaders (and a handful of secular non-profits) at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building for the first in what director Joshua Dubois says will be a series of briefings. The White House also released the complete list of members of the advisory council of religious and secular leaders who will provide Obama with advice and feedback. (View a 2 minute bio of Joshua DuBois.)

Unlike the faith-based office itself, which was created by President Bush, the advisory council is a newly established body that has never existed in previous administrations. Members each serve one-year terms, and they come from a wide range of religious traditions, including Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, mainline Protestant, and Evangelical communities. The group includes a mix of theological liberals, civil rights leaders, conservative Evangelicals and even a few vocal critics of the Democratic Party's approach to social issues. At last summer's Democratic National Convention, council member Bishop Charles Blake of the Church of God in Christ criticized those who show "disregard for the lives of the unborn" and urged Democrats to aggressively pursue policies to reduce the abortion rate.

Since its inception just two months ago, the council has already sparked controversy. Last week word leaked out that Obama had asked former Indianapolis Colts' football coach Tony Dungy to serve on the council. The move was criticized by gay rights and other liberal organizations because the Evangelical Dungy had supported an anti-gay marriage initiative in Indiana in 2007. Dungy ended up declining the White House invitation, while Harry Knox, director of the religion and faith program at the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group, was added to the council.

The White House faith-based office does face some significant challenges in its work. One of the attendees at this week's meetings was Stanley Carlson-Thies, who served as deputy director of the office under Bush. After hearing Dubois plead for help getting out the word that the office is not responsible for doling out money to faith organizations, Carlson-Thies chuckled. "We spent eight years telling people that," he said. Already, council members are fielding calls from those who think the group can provide federal grants. That widespread misconception about the office's role may also make it harder to win over liberal critics who were convinced that Bush used the faith-based initiative as a slush fund for his religious supporters. (Read Obama Tries to Renew Faith in a Faith-Based Office.)

Obama and his staff are also finding that abortion reduction — one of the four priorities in the faith-based office's mission — is more controversial than they had anticipated. It was the only one of the four main issues not discussed in this week's briefings. And the White House has reorganized its internal flow chart so that Dubois now shares responsibility for the issue with the new Council on Women and Girls. In late March, Dubois met with a group of religious conservatives — including representatives from the Concerned Women for America and the Family Research Council — and that interaction caused heartburn among some leaders in the pro-choice community.

While the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships has been around for eight years, the Obama White House is very keen to stress that their version of the office will have an entirely different mission. Whereas Bush established the office to "level the playing field" for faith-based service organizations that he argued were unable to compete for federal grants, Obama intends to use his faith office more for policy matters. It operates under the Domestic Policy Council and is charged with focusing on four issues: domestic poverty, responsible fatherhood, reducing the need for abortion and preventing unintended pregnancy, and interreligious dialogue and cooperation.

"That's how we'll be judging our success," said Dubois on Monday evening. "It's how well we make advances in those areas — not on how many groups end up getting federal grants."

Throughout the two days, council members — as well as approximately 40 additional religious leaders who were invited to attend the sessions — sat through briefings by Administration officials on topics ranging from education reform and childhood hunger to energy policy. In a town where "religious issues" are often thought to be limited to hot-button social concerns like abortion and gay marriage, the wide array of information was welcomed by many of those gathered. "This shows us that none of our faiths disqualify us from being concerned about the issues facing our country," said Vashti McKenzie, a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal church. She added, "We've heard from candidates before elections — thank you for coming to us after the election is over."

After eight years of worrying that meetings between religious and political leaders would lead to a theocratic state, liberals should be pleased that this first gathering was inclusive, open to the press, and focused on issues like poverty. And conservatives who predicted that the White House would be closed to anyone to the right of Jeremiah Wright should welcome the fact that doors are open to them as well. Faith and politics nearly always make for a messy combination. But openness and inclusion can keep them from becoming dangerous and scary as well.

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