Shameless self-promotion: faith-based initiatives

the-faith-based-initiative-1It’s an opinion piece, not a news article, but some of you might be interested in something I wrote for the Wall Street Journal‘s Houses of Worship column yesterday. I took a look at how President Barack Obama’s faith-based initiative office compares with Bush’s. After reminiscing about some of the warnings that Bush’s office was leading the country to a theocratic form of government, I wrote:

Now that Mr. Bush is gone, however, no one seems particularly worried about the entanglement of the federal government with religious organizations. A recent study sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that President Obama’s “faith-based initiative has so far generated little of the contentious press coverage associated with Bush’s effort.”

According to Pew, the media ran nearly seven times as much coverage of President Bush’s faith-based initiative during his first six months in office as President Obama’s. And the stories on Mr. Bush’s initiative were almost 50% more likely to be on the front-page, emphasizing the controversial nature of the program. The stories on Mr. Obama’s initiative were buried deeper in the paper and focused on procedure. Few, if any, stories questioned whether the current president would use his office to advance a religious agenda, a major theme of coverage during the Bush ­administration.

This scant media attention is all the more incredible given that, as Americans United for Separation of Church and State has noted, Mr. Obama has left “the entire architecture of the Bush Faith-Based Initiative intact—every rule, every regulation, every executive order.” More controversially, the office has become a major hub of political outreach. In frequent conference calls, the administration informs faith-based leaders of its policy initiatives, as when it recently asked rabbis around the country to give sermons on health-care reform during the coming high holiday season. Representatives from politically important religious groups have been appointed to a 25-member religious advisory council. The office was also involved in drafting President Obama’s June speech delivered from Cairo calling for alliances with ­Muslims.

In full disclosure, which is pretty easy to discern if you are familiar with my views on church and state, I am not in favor of government funding of religious charities. Mostly because I think it’s bad for the religious charities. The point being that I’m not a big fan of either office. I’m sure many readers do not share my views.

But what’s interesting is the difference in media coverage. And from what I learned in researching that piece, there’s a lot that could be investigated.

So I thought I might highlight a few other recent mainstream media treatments of President Obama’s faith-based office. Dan Gilgoff at U.S. News & World Report interviewed Frank Page, one of the members of Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships:

How involved is the White House in orchestrating the work of the council? Are you and other members free to convene conference calls to make progress in devising policy recommendations?

The White House directs all meetings and calls and brings in all the people who they want to talk to us. There has been little opportunity for self-direction. There was going to be a chairperson named for each of the council’s six task forces, but that has not occurred. That said, I do speak with the White House at least every other week.

And USA Today‘s Cathy Lynn Grossman covered a panel discussion at the Religion Newswriters Association that featured, among others, Gilgoff and Page.

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  • dalea

    For Hillary deadenders like me, Obama’s fascination with religion has always been troubling. This has been endlessly covered by both the Gay press and the PUMA sites. Both take the position Mollie enunciates:

    In full disclosure, which is pretty easy to discern if you are familiar with my views on church and state, I am not in favor of government funding of religious charities.

    It’s nice to see Mollie aligning with hard core leftists on this vital issue. On this issue new media sites like Confluence and Anglachal’s Journal have been consistently critical of Obama’s approach.

  • Ken


    Your WSJ article was great!

    I sent it to several former associates in the Department of Schools at a local Catholic Diocese. I’ve been after them for years to shun the money that is made available by government’s Department of Education because of strings I see being attached to it. Yet fairness dictates that families not be penalized by the seizure of taxes to never see the money again unless they send their kids to the government school. The short term answer is vouchers and choice. Maybe the racketeering scandal about to break with ACORN and its connections with several government agencies will rock the boat and make citizens look more closely at where and for what their money goes.

    As for “I’m sure many readers do not share my views” — not this one! Anyone with a brain and the ability to think and discern, or as a priest friend puts it “look at what happened to Catholic Charities,” should have been able to foresee what people with corrupt intents would do with “faith based initiatives.”

    But maybe not. I listened to the final summer Prom Concert from London today on the radio and at the end of the program heard the conductor ask the audience to applaud the BBC for putting on the concert series. Note to British citizens: The BBC is your taxes at work, you’re applauding yourselves.

    The cumulative effect of “soft tyranny” at work again.

  • Jerry


    I think you should have highlighted the end of that piece you wrote:

    Barry Lynn, head of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, was a vocal critic of Mr. Bush’s faith-based office. Now, under Mr. Obama, he serves on the advisory council’s task force to improve the functioning of the office. Explaining his turnaround, he said he doesn’t view Mr. Obama’s office as partisan—the way Mr. Bush’s was. But acknowledging that there was no substantive difference between the offices yet, Mr. Lynn said: “We have a guarded optimism that when the advisory council, Justice and the White House act and get down to the nitty gritty, they will make this a constitutionally protected program. However, we have no proof of that and no guarantee.”

    Now that is the audacity of hope.

    That ending undercuts the paste of the comment that President Obama has left the structure intact. It says explicitly that the jury is still out. So your posting here gave me a very different sense than the WSJ piece you wrote.

  • Dave

    Mollie, you’ve compared coverage in the first six months of each President’s administration. For Bush, that’s all before the World Trade Center terrorist attacks. I seem to recall that faith-based initiatives took a journalistic back seat to more pressing matters after 9/11. Obama, by contrast, took office during an economic crisis, a financial seize-up and the impending implosion of the domestic auto industry. Faith-based initiatives took the same back seat out of the gate. That’s the appropriate, apples-to-apples comparison of coverages.

    In an earlier thread I outlined, and defended, the conclusion that the Christian Right properly evokes more concern when it gets entangled with government than the Christian Left, because of the former’s prior machinations; and that it’s predictable that this imbalance of concern has made its way into the MSM culture. As I said on that occasion, the difference in raised hackles is an example of the press getting religion.

    Jerry’s excerpt goes in the direction of my comment about Obama maintaining Bush’s regulatory structure for the initiative. It matters less what’s written on paper than what the wink-and-nudge culture is. For example, Bush’s faith-based director notoriously told the press that Pagans don’t have good enough hearts to engage in charity; I don’t expect anything like that out of Obama’s office.

    The presence of Bush-intiative critic Barry Lynn on an Obama-initiative advisory body should not be a scandal or even a surprise. If the former administration’s execution of the initiative drew Lynn’s fire, bring him inside so he can offer his correctives in camera instead of ex cathedra. That’s just Chicago politics, of the good kind.