In the eight weeks since Barack Obama was elected president, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism Director David Saperstein or members of his Washington, D.C.-based staff have attended roughly a dozen meetings with Obama's transition team, on topics ranging from domestic poverty and the plight of White House faith-based initiatives to foreign policy challenges like bringing peace to the Middle East.
"This is the most extensive outreach and listening tour that I've ever seen a new administration take, and that is certainly true of their outreach to the faith community," says Saperstein, who has worked with presidential transition teams going back to Jimmy Carter's. "It's quite remarkable."
The effort is noteworthy not only for the number of Obama transition team meetings with religious groups—about 15 so far—but also because top Obama policy aides have joined the powwows. Melody Barnes, who will be director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, and Heather Higginbottom, who will be the council's deputy director, have participated in some of the meetings.
"There is the feeling that these are not perfunctory meetings but serious meetings with people in policymaking roles who know the process well," says James Winkler, general secretary of the public policy arm of the United Methodist Church, who says that he or his staff have attended nearly a dozen meetings with the Obama transition team so far. "This is not something meant to bring in the faith community to keep them happy but to solicit our views and ideas."
Winkler said that during George W. Bush's tenure, "we were never contacted by the administration" after an initial meeting with the White House Office of Public Liaison, which traditionally handles outreach to religious groups and other constituencies. Though Bush is a Methodist, a group of Methodist bishops was unsuccessful in repeated attempts to meet with the president in the run-up to the Iraq war, which the United Methodist Church opposed.
Heading up religious outreach for Obama's transition team is Joshua DuBois, a Pentecostal and onetime associate pastor who directed religious outreach for the Obama campaign. Mark Linton, the Obama campaign's Catholic outreach director, is leading the effort to design an Obama administration version of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, and Mara Vanderslice, an evangelical Democratic operative who has helped spearhead the party's post-2004 religious outreach offensive, is now Obama's outreach liaison to religious communities.
Representatives from a handful of outside religious groups meeting with the Obama transition team expect these aides to stay on in the new administration.
The Obama transition team would not comment about its meetings with religious groups apart from issuing a brief statement from DuBois, the religious outreach director. "The Obama-Biden transition team is working with a range of religious and secular community groups to solicit their views on the transition process and our agenda going forward," the statement read in part.
Interviews with 10 participants in the Obama transition team's faith-based meetings paint a portrait of Obama aides recording priorities and concerns of representatives from religious denominations and advocacy groups, mostly of the left-leaning variety. Their policy priorities include economic relief for the poor, new protections for organized labor, a stepped-up campaign to combat global warming, improved access to healthcare, and guarantees that the United States will forgo torture in its war on terror.
Some of the faith-based groups have also pressured the transition team to make a serious attempt to reduce demand for abortion by improving sex education and expanding government services for pregnant women.
Spokespeople for the social conservative advocacy group Family Research Council and for the Southern Baptist Convention—a huge, mostly conservative evangelical denomination—meanwhile, said that their organizations have not received invitations to meet with Obama's transition team. Southern Baptist Convention public policy chief Richard Land says that DuBois called him to report that Obama had personally read a letter from Land urging the president-elect to push legislation aimed at reducing the demand for abortion. "Mr. DuBois told me that he wanted to keep the bridges of communication open and that the door was always open for us to voice concerns," Land says. "I congratulated him on having picked Rick Warren to do the invocation at the inauguration."
Transition team meetings with faith groups focused on planning for a Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, Obama's version of the faith-based initiatives office that President Bush launched during his first term. The meetings have included advocates of strict church-state separation, who have traditionally criticized such programs.
"It doesn't bother me," Americans United for Separation of Church and State Executive Director Barry W. Lynn says of the Obama policy of having aides sit down frequently with religious groups. "It would only bother me if [Obama] starts implementing the policies of religious groups that are inconsistent with guarantees of the Constitution, and I haven't seen that yet."
Still, creating consensus around the Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships is emerging as an early challenge in Obama's efforts to satisfy both secular liberal and religious groups. For instance, proponents of church-state separation want Obama to peel back Bush-era exemptions on employment nondiscrimination laws for religious organizations receiving federal funds—allowing Christian groups to hire only Christians—while some religious groups say they need such hiring discretion to maintain the religious component of their programs.
For now, though, those groups are happy just to have the incoming administration's ear. "We're glad to have a good seat at the table and that [the Obama transition team] is listening to all sides," says Tanya Clay House, director of public policy for People for the American Way, which has expressed concerns about the propriety of federal faith-based initiatives. "The old administration listened to just one side of the argument."