Can Obama Make Faith-Based Initiatives Stronger Than Under Bush?

How Obama administers his faith-based office is fraught with political risk.

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By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country

In my story on President Obama's Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships rollout for last week, I described the huge challenge that awaits the administration in deciding whether or not to allow religious groups to do faith-based hiring with federal funds. Groups on the left consider it state-sanctioned discrimination. Groups on the right consider it essential to allowing religious organizations to maintain their religious identity.

The piece noted that Obama is going to alienate a lot of important players in the faith-based world regardless of what he decides.

But with challenge comes opportunity. In my column for this week's digital U.S. News weekly, I argue that, if he can somehow succeed in satisfying both sides on the hiring question, Obama might leave the quintessential George W. Bush domestic program on firmer footing than he found it. Here's the gist:

In trying to satisfy both the religious groups that Bush brought into the White House and advocates of church-state separation, Obama faces a delicate balancing act. He could wind up alienating both camps. But if he can mollify church-state separation watchdogs with new limits on how faith-based funds are spent while also expanding the universe of religious groups involved, Obama just might make the Bush program stronger than before.

After Obama was elected, aides embarked on an intensive fact-finding mission to learn about faith-based initiatives under Bush and to collect ideas for improving (or fixing, as critics would say) the program. Obama's team met with dozens of groups with a stake in faith-based initiatives, from traditional social service providers like Catholic Charities USA to a constellation of new religious left groups to Bush White House veterans like [Stanley] Carlson-Thies [who helped design faith-based initiatives for Bush]. The team even powwowed with opponents of faith-based initiatives, including Jewish groups worried about state-supported Christianity.

The biggest question for Obama is how he'll handle Bush's policy of allowing faith-based groups to use religious background as a factor in hiring for government-funded positions. In announcing his faith-based office, Obama delayed a decision on the matter until further legal review. Advocates of church-state separation and liberal backers of faith-based initiatives view the Bush policy, which exempts religious groups from federal nondiscrimination rules attached to government funds, as illegal discrimination. Some religious groups and those on the right see it as an essential safeguard for faith-based organizations' rights to exercise religious convictions....

"If the message to religious groups is, you're welcome in the public square if you alter hiring practices and water down your religious identity, you're going to lose a lot of them," says Jim Towey, who directed faith-based initiatives under Bush...

With so many concerns on the left and the right, Obama will have to stay personally dedicated to faith-based initiatives for the program to survive, let alone thrive. "He's not going to find a lot of hard-core support in Congress," says Towey. But Obama has a personal connection to faith-based initiatives, having started out as a church-based community organizer. Which means the program that Bush instituted via executive order in 2001 to skirt Democratic opposition may have just found its strongest Democratic patron.

Read the full column.