In less than 100 days, Obama has made good on a few of his promises. One of them is to expand President Bush’s faith-based initiatives office. Unfortunately, Obama’s latest attempt to reach out to religious groups might may not work out so well either -- for them or him.
A few weeks ago, Obama expanded the White House Faith-Based Initiatives Office -- now the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships -- by appointing a new Executive Director and announcing their new direction with characteristic sincerity and conviction at the annual National Prayer Breakfast. “This work is important, because 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.”
Immediately, some religious leaders and organizations applauded these efforts. In an article on Christianity Today’s website, the authors said they saw “five encouraging signs” about Obama’s revamped faith-based office and had only one major concern. They liked the new director -- a 26-year-old Pentecostal minister with a master’s degree in public policy from Princeton and thought Obama’s repeated use of the word ‘partnership’ was promising. The authors were pleased that Obama shared many of the concerns of evangelicals like promoting fatherhood initiatives, reducing poverty and making abortions rare and raved that Obama’s new advisory council which includes members like Jim Wallis and Pastor Joel Hunter was a “sign of hope.”
Jim Wallis, long-time leader of the religious left and Sojourners blogged about his excitement in being a part of the new group on Huffington Post and leaders like Eboo Patel, founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core -- and the only Muslim on the advisory council -- told NPR he also enthusiastically backs Obama’s new initiative.
Still, before religious groups yell “Amen!” too loudly, there appear to be some obvious and subtle hang-ups. First the subtle: Democrats only provided half of the $100 million funding the House version did to faith-based organizations through the Compassion Capital Fund. This is while Obama was supposedly “expanding” Bush’s faith-based program. Though it may not be any consolation to religious groups, that’s about what the Fund received in fiscal year of 2008 under President Bush.
In a July speech last year, Obama said he would expand Bush’s program by allocating $500 million per year for summer learning camps. While some have said Obama’s new office is better-funded, that funding wasn’t allocated under the stimulus plan. It’s not clear how much more money funds the new office now or when it will receive more funding and how much.
Now for the obvious: When Obama announced his new office, some faith-based groups were quick to point out the hiring loophole Obama left wide open. During the campaign, Obama explained the difference between his faith-based initiatives office and President Bush’s. "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. However, when Obama opened his new office, he did not confirm this remained his position
Liberal and religious groups took note. In a statement to Obama, leaders of the Anti-Defamation League said: "We are deeply troubled by the prospect that taxpayer money will likely fund religious discrimination in employment decisions involving the people who deliver faith-based social services."
Likewise, in the Christianity Today article referenced above, the authors noted their one major concern about Obama’s new approach to the office was the same. “[H]ow many ministries will want to tell federal investigators that they engage in "religious job discrimination," if this is how the issue is framed?...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.”
What’s troubling is not as much that Obama may not let religious groups receive federal funds and hire whomever they please, but that churches think this arrangement is possible. Even Obama admitted when he started his new office: "The goal…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 that our founders wisely drew between church and state."
This crack in frame of the newly expanded faith-based office may force faith-based groups to reconsider their role in the Obama administration. Many argue there is little proof of the success of federally subisized faith-based initiatives as a whole -- for example, after Hurricane Katrina, a White House report applauded faith-based organizations for their response to those who needed aid, but their success was “in spite of, not because of, the government.”
Obama’s hiring gap may push the groups that receive these funds to perform their religious calling to the fullest with whomever they want to hire, no strings -- or federal money -- attached. Especially since most religious organizations do not intend to just meet the physical needs of the poor, the needy, the fatherless, the homeless and feel compelled to try and meet their spiritual needs too. This is usually done with staff who embrace the same religious conviction as the organization.
In a recent CNN piece, attorney David Dietman explained what this could mean to churches. “If adopted, 'faith-based' initiatives will open the door to the federally mandated destruction of one of the few areas of civil society that works, namely, the private religious and charitable arena."
Religious groups should not be upset by the guidelines Obama set. Instead they should think twice about accepting federal funds. Maybe this year, faith-based groups will have to operate more on faith than finances, to the betterment of everyone who receives their aid.
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