A New Role for Faith in Obama's White House

Religion is playing a larger role in Obama's presidency than it did in Bush's.

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For all the controversy that George W. Bush's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives generated over the proper line between church and state, President Obama's faith-based office has given religious figures a bigger role in influencing White House decisions. Before Obama's May address to the Muslim world from Cairo, for example, the office organized a conference call with American religious leaders to help shape the speech. Earlier this month, Obama's office (now called the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships) launched a national tour of town hall meetings on fatherhood that will collect ideas for shaping family policy.

And in the coming weeks, the White House will announce what it calls a "common ground" plan on reducing demand for abortion that the faith-based office helped craft after conferring with scores of religious groups and leaders. "This administration has taken it to a different level in terms of real input from the faith community on policy," says Jim Wallis, a progressive evangelical activist who worked with Bush's faith-based office early on and now sits on Obama's Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

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 economic 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."

A recent report by the Rockefeller Institute criticized Bush's faith-based office for politicizing its work, sending staff to rallies for Republican candidates, and concentrating training sessions in swing states. While commending the office for easing government resistance toward funding faith-based groups, the report found that those groups received the same share of federal dollars under Bush as they had previously, largely because Bush cut discretionary grant programs. And charges that Bush's office helped funnel money to favored political constituencies helped provoke the Obama White House's decision to de-emphasize the office's role as grant facilitator.