We are pleased to feature an interview with Joshua DuBois as the first post on this new blog about the art and craft of writing on religion. DuBois’ recently published book, The President’s Devotional, has been well received and widely reviewed. DuBois served as Executive Director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships during President Obama’s first term. He now teaches at New York University and is founder of the Values Partnerships consultancy. Joshua DuBois will be speaking at the upcoming Christianity21 conference in Denver (Jan. 9-11, 2014), of which Patheos is a co-sponsor. Patheos’ Executive Editor, David Charles, conducted the following interview.
The President’s Devotional is an unusual book, in a welcome way: while the daily devotionals stand on their own, you’ve added personal notes about yourself, about President Obama, and about what it’s like to serve in the White House in a highly divisive political atmosphere. Pitch the book to a potential reader: Why should someone read it?
A few reasons:
- Read this book if you’re looking for a theological boost in the morning that’s not too heavy, and not too light. The President’s Devotional brings people closer to God and to their purpose on earth each day, using meaty scripture, history and culture — but it’s an easy read at the same time.
- Read this book if you want one of the better compilations of quotations that has been published in the last 50 years. The President’s Devotional mines wisdom from everyone from Kierkegaard to Johnny Cash, Nina Simone to Abraham Lincoln, and many others. It’s great for students, pastors, teachers and others who appreciate popular wisdom.
- Read this book if you want to know more about President Obama as a man, rather than just the Commander-in-Chief or a guy on the television screen. Through the essays that begin each month, readers will see a side of the President they’ve never seen before.
- Read this book if you want to know about one man’s faith journey in the White (namely, me): triumphs and failures, and everything in between.
In the new Patheos Public Square feature, we’ve asked a number of writers and faith leaders whether America needs a civil religion. (Shaun Casey of the State Department has been criticized for saying he’s “glad” American civil religion is dying.) What’s your take?
American civil religion is in our bones, and I think that’s just fine. It provides a tie that binds many of us – not all, but many – together, when so many other ties are fraying. Now of course, there are all sorts of parameters around our civil religion and limits on its expression (President Obama described some of these limits in a seminal 2006 speech, Call to Renewal). But in an age where I can think of so many cultural forces that fracture us from each other, I’m not willing to say that this particular bond should disappear.
Among your personal reflections that introduce each month’s devotionals, the most passionate, and perhaps most personal, is called “On Disagreement.” You write about feeling “shame and regret” in the wake of the President’s decision not to “exempt religious groups from the requirement to buy contraception.” What would you tell people who consider that decision a major blow for religious liberty in America?
First, I would say – and I say in The President’s Devotional – that the Administration eventually got it right. I’m fully satisfied that with the changes that have been made, faith-based organizations now do not have to violate their core beliefs, and women now have access to the full range of care they need.
The essay was actually less about the policy, and more about the difficult process for me of learning how to debate an extremely contentious issue without questioning the motives of those on the other side. I learned a lot in that debate; it was one of the more difficult essays to write, but one that I hope will illuminate important principles for readers.
Since leaving the White House, you’ve become a writer, teacher, and consultant. What’s the single biggest lesson you take with you from your time working for President Obama?
That we live in a country filled with inherently good people. There are good people working in government, who are doing their best every single day to serve the American people. There are good people on the other side of the aisle, who may disagree on some issues but whose moral compass is strong. And there are good people across the country: the vast majority of Americans are just trying to live their lives, support their families, and stay out of the divisiveness in Washington. The caustic debates and politics that we see on television and social media are a caricature of America, not a reflection of the real country most of us live in.
Most importantly, we shifted the focus of the faith-based initiative from promoting access to grants alone to partnering with faith-based groups to solve specific national challenges. I describe this shift in focus more in a speech I gave at the Brookings Institute, here.
In addition to reframing the Office’s mission, we had a number of tangible successes.
- We launched the “Job Clubs” program where we helped congregations around the country set up and expand employment ministries for unemployed congregants
- We kicked off the President’s Interfaith Campus Challenge which brings religiously diverse student groups together around the country to serve their communities.
- We created the first-ever Interagency Working Group on Religion and Global Affairs to explore the status of the Administration’s work on religious issues overseas, which eventually led to expanded engagement of religion at the State Department.
- And we created the first-ever Presidential faith-based Advisory Council, to receive recommendations from faith and nonprofit leaders on some of the most important issues of the day, and we implemented many of that Council’s recommendations.
These are just a few examples of the work of the faith-based office. This work continues under the strong leadership of the new director of the faith-based office, Melissa Rogers, and her outstanding staff.
What can you tell us about the President’s personal faith or religious beliefs? Journalists have struggled to understand what impact religion plays in his daily life and decisions as President.
President Obama is a committed Christian, and his faith is an important part of his life. He’s reflected on what his faith means to him in a number of speeches; I would point folks to his remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast and the annual White House Easter Prayer Breakfast, a tradition President Obama actually began.
President Obama cultivates his Christian faith in quiet but serious ways. Obviously he reads these devotionals every morning, but he also spends time in prayer with pastors in the Oval Office when he can, and attends worship services in Washington as often as possible. I’ve said before that he’s not necessarily the type of leader to wear his faith on his sleeve – but I’d rather have a leader who lives a sermon than one who just preaches one. And I think that’s the type of believer President Obama is.
The intersection of religion and politics has always been deeply fraught. As a front-row observer of the roles religion plays in cultural and political battles, what broad trends do you see occurring in the United States in the years ahead?
Within my own Christian tradition, I’m excited about a “back to the basics” faith that seems to be spreading across the country, and around the world. From Pope Francis to Jefferson Bethke, folks are tired of the trappings of religion – and particularly the divisive politics too often associated with religion – and want to talk about Jesus again. I think that will bring people back to the church, in a lasting, durable way.
I also think we have some tough debates ahead at the intersection of religious liberty and progressive change. As LGBT rights expand and women’s issues continue to be hotly debated, we’ll need a serious conversation about the role and rights of the church, and especially the theologically conservative church, in a changing public square.
Finally, I think this will be a decade marked by an expanded role for women leaders within traditional religious institutions – and I think that’s a very good thing.
Tell us about your writing process. How did you decide which quotes and verses to send to the President each morning?
My wife (at the time my fiancée), would give me leave to spend hours after church on Sunday at a dock in Washington, looking over the water, flipping through the Bible and other books, praying, and writing down the inspiration that came to mind. I would also pray and think about what challenges the President might be facing at a given moment, and try to speak to those issues. And I listened to a lot of good music – from gospel to traditional hymns and a fair amount of jazz – and tried to let that inspire me as well.