Dan Gilgoff, God & Country
Earlier this month, President Obama's faith-based office marked its six-month anniversary. Although the news media has paid it little mind, the administration has quietly transformed the office from the one that George W. Bush launched in 2001.
Boosters say the Obama office gives religious leaders a real voice in shaping policy while deemphasizing its role under Bush as a matchmaker between religious groups and the national piggybank.
Critics say the office has kept too low a profile and is too focused on faith outreach, which they say is more political than substantive.
Here's the crux of my U.S. News Weekly column sizing up the office at the six-month mark, just posted at usnews.com:
Six months after its rollout, Obama's office has dramatically shifted gears from the one that Bush started from scratch in 2001. Bush's office sought to "level the playing field" for faith-based and community groups seeking federal grants to deliver social services, like counseling drug addicts and mentoring at-risk youth. Obama, by contrast, has tasked his office with four broad policy goals: bringing faith groups into the recovery and fighting poverty, reducing demand for abortion, promoting responsible fatherhood, and facilitating global interfaith dialogue. "We're moving from a sole focus on leveling the playing field," says Joshua DuBois, the office's executive director, "to forming partnerships with faith-based and community groups to help solve specific policy challenges."
Yet some of the biggest questions surrounding Obama's office when it launched remain unanswered. The administration has not decided whether to allow religious groups to hire only fellow believers with federal funds, a hugely controversial issue. The outside faith advisory council, which will formulate proposals for achieving the office's policy goals—and for combating climate change and reforming the office itself—won't formalize its recommendations until next year. And the office is still devising metrics by which to measure its effectiveness, a subject of much debate during the Bush years.
Reinforcing its new policy role, Obama has brought his office under the purview of his Domestic Policy Council, delighting many faith leaders, particularly on the left. "The Bush office was totally disconnected from policy," says Wallis. "That White House was doing social policy that made poor people poorer, and the faith-based office would try to clean up the mess." The faith advisory council will submit first drafts of policy recommendations in October. "The council has access to experts, policymakers, and administrators [in the White House] at the levels we've asked for," says David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, who sits on the council.
Such access has upset some on the left, who say religious leaders shouldn't be shaping government policy, and some on the right, who say the work amounts to politically inspired religious outreach. "We would have gotten killed for doing that," says Jim Towey, who directed Bush's faith-based office and notes that religious outreach in the previous administration was handled by the White House Office of Public Liaison, which reported to Karl Rove. "It looks like a political office now."
Read the full story here.