A Faith-Based Fix

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

Obama Votive Candle Stirs Collectors And Critics

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.”