The National Association of Evangelicals' Questions for Obama's Faith-Based Office

The nation's largest evangelical organization responds to Obama's new initiatives.

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By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country

The National Association of Evangelicals, the nation's largest evangelical organization, claiming 30 million members, just issued its response to Obama's rollout of his Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships Office. The document is worth a close read not only because of the NAE's political clout but because it was written by Carl Esbeck, a key architect of the faith-based initiatives program and an influential supporter of George Bush's faith-based initiatives office.

Esbeck strikes a conciliatory tone but raises some important questions for the Obama administration, including whether the size of Obama's faith-based office will grow to accommodate its broader mandate, which now includes reducing abortion, promoting responsible fathering, and engaging in global interfaith dialogue. Esbeck and the NAE think it should:

. . . the office's greatly expanded portfolio will quickly overwhelm a staff the size of the Bush Faith-Based Initiative. To do justice to all four of these charges—from abortion to fatherlessness to reaching out to moderate Muslims—will take a staff five-fold the half dozen employees under President Bush. We do not want the office's social-service outreach to those who serve the poor and needy to get lost among all these added responsibilities. . . .

The overriding question for the NAE, of course, is whether Obama keeps the Bush-era exemption for religious groups inregard to following nondiscrimination rules when using federal funds. The exemption allows religious groups to hire only like-minded believers, and Obama punted on the question during last week's faith-based rollout:

If hiring rights are denied because of a change of leadership at Obama's Department of Justice, many evangelicals will turn away from participation in federal grant programs. That's hardly the "all hands on deck" approach the President called for as a way to soften the blow of the nation's deepening recession.

That hiring question gets all the media attention, but Esbeck points to another basket of thorny constitutional issues the Obama administration needs to resolve: How religious can the content of the federally funded services be? (The FBOs he refers to below are faith-based organizations.)

This is a difficult line to draw, and the Bush Administration declined to give guidance to either the regulators or FBOs for fear that to do so would make too many enemies. But we can't go on floundering in the dark and FBOs risking lawsuits. Second, when a federal grant is awarded directly to an FBO, how intensely must the government monitor the use of the grant monies?

This is treacherous terrain for Obama. On the one hand, church/state separation watchdogs and religious left types insist on stricter regulations to keep religion out of state-sponsored programs—and on better monitoring to make sure the regulations have teeth. Obama can't turn his back on these loyal political allies.

On the other hand, as Esbeck suggests, new regulations and oversight might scare off religious organizations at the very moment that Obama is trying to bring more into the White House's faith-based office. At some point soon, Obama will have to stop hedging on these questions. We'll see whether he can continue to keep all sides on board.