What is the Place of a "Faith-Based Initiatives" Office?

What is the Place of a "Faith-Based Initiatives" Office? October 14, 2010

Mollie Hemingway has an interesting post at GetReligion, on the different ways in which the Bush and Obama administrations have used their offices of faith-based initiatives, and the different ways in which the members of the press have responded.  She comments on how unresponsive the office under (Obama appointee) Joshua DuBois has been to external communications, and I can vouch personally that this is true.  I am sure that Mr DuBois is a competent and earnest young man, but for an office that is intended to be the connecting node between the administration and faith communities, it is extraordinarily uncommunicative.

The more important point, however, is that the Bush administration’s faith-based office — although it took its share of criticism when it directed funds toward Republican districts — employed the powers at its disposal to foster highly effective public-private partnerships that served the needy and helped prisoners reintegrate into their communities, find jobs, and serve as a force for good in the inner cities.  I am quite familiar with the Prisoner Reentry Initiative, and it stands out as a sterling example of what can be accomplished when faith-based ministries are permitted to compete on an equal playing field for government grants, and use those resources to accomplish lasting transformation in their communities.  I do not recall any cases in which the office, during the Bush administration, was employed for policy advocacy.

The concern is that Obama’s faith-based office has become a political operation that seeks to rally “the faith community” in support of Obama’s favored policies.  The administration will say that their recent massive conference call with religious leaders was merely to seek their help in “educating” their congregants about the changes in health care brought about by Obama’s reform.  It is debatable whether this is an appropriate use of the office in the first place, but the line becomes exceptionally thin between educating about the benefits of Obamacare, and providing a positive spin in the midst of an election season.  Having participated in one of these conference calls, prior to the passage of Obama’s reform package, I can tell you that there was no doubt whatsoever that “the faith community” was receiving a call to arms to fight on behalf of passage.

This passage from Hemingway may sound partisan, but it has the virtue of being correct:

Again, I’m absolutely no fan of this office for a million reasons, but the reality of the Bush office — particularly under its last director — was all about partnering with faith-based organizations. The first years were about changing the regulations to allow religious groups to compete for government grants, implementing the initiative in cabinet agencies, and helping launch faith-based offices at the state level. They expanded the office to include international aid. And then they focused on helping the religious groups build their capacity, expanding partnerships between the government and the non-profits and trying to think more strategically about how to address some large problem — such as the recidivism rate in the prison population.

I happen to oppose all these things and find them a horrible increase in the size and scope of government — but the way the media covered what that office did bore very little resemblance to what the office actually did. I actually spoke with some people who worked in that office and they told me that they could never get the media interested in their projects such as the Prisoner ReEntry Initiative, a work program that showed a recidivism rate among participants that is half the national average. Or the Access to Recovery program that worked with more than 400 nonprofit partners to provide substance abuse support to 200,000 people. The program showed a higher-than-average reduction in alcohol and drug use. Or the President’s Malaria Initiative, a $1.2 billion program that used faith-based and community organizations to educate African community leaders and mobilize grassroots volunteers.

If there is anything like this type of program emphasis happening in the current faith-based office, I will eat my shoe. I mean, I don’t think they even have the capacity. Whatever else might be said about Bush’s faith-based office, it was led by policy wonks. DuBois is a campaign operative. I think they’ve basically just made their faith-based initiative office their political outreach arm.

Leading the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives under President Bush (in the Obama administration it is called the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships) were men of great influence and experience, like John DiIulio and Jim Towey.  Even the youngest of the leaders in the Bush administration, Jedd Medefind, was a good deal older than DuBois and more experienced in politics and non-profit organization.

In a recent interview, not yet published, I asked Jedd whether he felt that his office mixed politics and faith in an unhealthy way:

I can say with absolute certainty that I always saw my role as seeking to make government efforts to aid the needy more effective by welcoming every willing partner, both faith-based and secular. The primary issue was moving away from big government, bureaucratic response to need, and instead empowering the creativity and compassion of locally-based solutions.

To the extent that an initiative like this one gets away from that primary focus, there is danger of it becoming overly political. That’s something that frankly could be said for any positive initiative in government; there’s the potential for politicization. But it needs to be watched particularly closely when faith-based organizations are involved.

When I asked whether he felt that the Obama administration had overstepped those bounds and become an advocacy office, Jedd did not want to criticize the current administration.  The only response he offered was this:

When the Obama administration took power, they signaled that they intended to continue the Bush administration’s focus on effective problem-solving through the faith-based and community initiative. I believe they really meant that, and I would encourage them to keep their focus on problem-solving and carefully avoid wading into advocacy efforts.

I would agree.  Carefully managed, I believe that such an office can be used to expand the reach and effectiveness of faith-based and secular organizations that are doing extraordinary work to serve the needy in our society.  When it begins to use churches as instruments of political gain, however, then it would be better if the office did not exist at all.  I believe that Josh DuBois is a good man, and he genuinely believes that he is serving the good by rallying the faithful behind what he considers to be the worthy and necessary reforms proposed by his boss.  Greater transparency, however, and greater accountability, could help save him from leaning too far in the advocacy direction.

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