Jim Wallis on How Obama's Faith-Based Initiatives Office Is Shaping Up

I spoke with the granddaddy and leading light of the religious left.

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By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country

I spoke yesterday with Jim Wallis, granddaddy and leading light of the burgeoning religious left, who offered a glimpse into how the Obama transition team is planning for its White House faith-based initiatives office. I recently reported that the Obama team has convened an outside advisory committee on faith-based initiatives, which under Obama will be called the President's Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Wallis says the committee has been talking by phone once a week and that it has scheduled two calls for this week.

I'll be writing more in coming days about how Obama's faith-based initiatives office is shaping up, but here are a couple of excerpts from our interview. Note that Wallis is most excited about the prospect of poverty-alleviating policy outside of the faith-based initiatives office and that he doesn't expect many big changes from the way that office worked under Bush, at least not in the very near term.

So what are this week's two calls with the transition team's faith-based initiatives advisory committee about?

One call is focused on a particular aspect of the faith-based thing and one more general: how to build on the good things that the Bush faith-based office did and how do you improve the things that need real improvements. It's everything from approach to logistics to linking the office to better policy.

One of my concerns during the Bush years is that the faith-based office became a substitute for solid domestic policy aimed at reducing poverty. It became an "instead of" office. John Dilulio [Bush's first director of faith-based initiatives] said that when you highlight the work of child development programs in churches and faith-based organizations but cut Head Start, that's a problem. Or when you you're highlighting health clinics and cutting SCHIP [the State Children's Health Insurance Program], it doesn't work.

So John left after six months because there was no connection to policy. The faith-based office became a band-aid instead of a partnership with a really solid commitment to reducing poverty on a policy level. This time, that will be corrected. . . . Barack himself committed to the pledge that we asked politicians to make to cut poverty in half in 10 years and to commit to the millennium development goals.

Some aspects of the Bush office of faith-based initiatives were pretty controversial, like the exemptions for religious organizations to follow federal nondiscrimination laws in hiring. Do you expect big changes early on?

Those things have been in the conversation and a lot more. . . . The hiring question, that's been mentioned. But I would not expect any significant changes in the near term. Over time, I expect the administration will sit down with organizations already involved in this work, and they'll be worked out in a way that preserves the religious identity of the organizations and that [is] consistent with civil rights. There is no disagreement that these programs' services should be done in an entirely nondiscriminating way. Everyone wants the government to fund results, not religion.

But the discussion has been broader and deeper than a handful of those old concerns. It's really about how to deepen and expand partnerships with faith-based organizations—and not just financially. There has been too much focus in the past on funding and grants. That's important and will continue, but it's not been the main focus of the conversation.

On a lot of the other fronts, there will be continuity. There's a lot of talk just about how to make it work better, smoother, easier, so it's more faith friendly. To make it more accessible to on-the-ground, local, independent, faith-based organizations that aren't necessarily the big ones. Sometimes the most effective work being done is by groups at the local level with no relationship to Washington or to policy, so how do you create that?

  • Read more about Obama and faith-based initiatives.
  • Read more by Dan Gilgoff.