Steven Waldman

Steven Waldman

Obama’s New Faith Based Office — Substantive But Leaning Left

The main thing I was looking for in the creation of Obama’s faith-based office was whether it’s designed to mobilize the faith community to solve problems — or russle up votes. Is it substantive or political (as it was under Bush)?.
How did Obama do?
He created a “new” White House Office of Faith-based and Neibhorhood Partnerships, a less-than-dramatic rhetorical break from George Bush’s White House Office of Faith-based and Commnity Initiatives. I’m not clear on why “Neighborhod Partnerships” is superior than “Community Initiatives.” I guess if they want to stand for Change, they need to change the stationery.
The most positive sign: Obama assigned the office substantive priorities, as opposed to, say, just improving “outreach” to the religious community. The priorities:

“making community groups an integral part of our economic recovery and poverty a burden fewer have to bear when recovery is complete.
“look at how we support women and children, address teenage pregnancy, and reduce the need for abortion.
“support fathers who stand by their families, which involves working to get young men off the streets and into well-paying jobs, and encouraging responsible fatherhood.
“work with the National Security Council to foster interfaith dialogue with leaders and scholars around the world.”

It almost seems as if they’re viewing faith-groups as ways of solving problems rather than towards political ends. As Amy Sullivan notes, the office reports to the policy apparatus not the political office. Very encouraging. And it’s fascinating, and potentially important, that they’re to help “reduce the need for abortion.”
However, I’m disappointed by the composition of the Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships he created at the same time. It’s an outstanding group of people, and it’s notable that there are quite a number of pro-lifers in the group. But other than on abortion, the group so far tilts left.
I’m still trying to figure out the politics of these folks — and it should be said that some of them are just great professionals and their ideology is largely irrelevant — but here’s my first whack:

Rabbi David N. Saperstein, Director & Counsel, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and noted church/state expert Washington, DC — Progressive and/or Obama Supporter
Rev. Otis Moss, Jr., Pastor emeritus, Olivet Institutional Baptist Church Cleveland, OH — Progressive and/or Obama Supporter
Eboo S. Patel, Founder & Executive Director, Interfaith Youth Corps Chicago, IL — Progressive and/or Obama Supporter
Dr. William J. Shaw, President, National Baptist Convention, USA Philadelphia, PA — Progressive and/or Obama Supporter
Melissa Rogers, Director, Wake Forest School of Divinity Center for Religion and Public Affairs and expert on church/state issues Winston-Salem, NC — Progressive and/or Obama Supporter
Pastor Joel C. Hunter, Senior Pastor, Northland, a Church Distributed Lakeland, FL – ???
Dr. Arturo Chavez, Ph.D., President & CEO, Mexican American Cultural Center
San Antonio, TX — Progressive and/or Obama Supporter
Rev. Jim Wallis, President & Executive Director, Sojourners, Washington, DC — Progressive and/or Obama Supporter
Bishop Vashti M. McKenzie, Presiding Bishop, 13th Episcopal District, African Methodist Episcopal Church Knoxville, TN — Progressive and/or Obama Supporter
Dr. Frank S. Page, President emeritus, Southern Baptist Convention Taylors, SC — Conservative
Diane Baillargeon, President & CEO, Seedco, a secular national operating intermediary
New York, NY — ???
Richard Stearns, President, World Vision, Bellevue, WA — ???
Judith N. Vredenburgh, President and Chief Executive Officer, Big Brothers / Big Sisters of America Philadelphia, PA — ???
Fred Davie, President, Public / Private Ventures, a secular non-profit intermediary
New York, NY — ???
Father Larry J. Snyder, President, Catholic Charities USA Alexandria, VA — ???

It should be said that several of the progressives on the list are anti-abortion, so at least on that one issue, it’s quite balanced — stunningly so, for a Democrat. And they’re planning to appoint ten more people; perhaps some more will be more conservative. But couldn’t they have made it more impactful if they’d gotten more conservatives?
Also, the new office will be run by Obama’s campaign religious outreach director, Joshua Dubois, making it less likely that the efforts truly unite red, blue and purple believers. He’s surely a talented man but had George W. Bush appointed a panel made up mostly of conservative clergy, reporting to, say, Ralph Reed, wouldn’t progressives be skeptical?
Interesting takes from:

  • Mark Silk (who thinks Obama has walked back from part of his campaign promise)..
  • Amy Sullivan (who lays out the faith-based hiring minefield)….
  • Dan Gilgoff (who notes the diversity on at least the issue of faith-based hiring)…The Economist (which notes that Obama again paid tribute to non-believers)
  • Jim Wallis (thrilled that “the elimination of poverty and the reduction of abortion are central goals”)
  • Aziz Poonawalla a.k.a. City of Brass (who feels there are sufficient conservative voices)
Comments read comments(16)
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posted February 5, 2009 at 3:47 pm

Man, depends on how you define “progressive.” A lot of these fellows (I’m less familiar with the women) are not only anti-abortion but suspect, at best, on other progressive issues, such as LGBT equality. Rev. Hunter, I believe, is no friend of gay and lesbian people. And he’s written a book titled “A New Kind of Conservative.” Where do you come off calling him progressive? Would you call Rick Warren a progressive, too? ‘Cause he sure ain’t.

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posted February 5, 2009 at 3:50 pm

Perhaps religious conservatives’ response to Obama Administration overtures to join this team parallels that of Repbulicans invited to practice bipartisanship.

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posted February 5, 2009 at 4:46 pm

You left out one of the most important changes the President put through: the requirement that any agency wanting to participate furnish evidence that they do not discriminate in their hiring practices.
The previous president allowed for discriminatory hiring.

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Steven Waldman

posted February 5, 2009 at 4:54 pm

Tim, that’s why I wrote “progressive and/or Obama supporter”
What the panel lacks is clearcut McCain voters. Certainly there’s no requirement that everything be bipartisan and cross-ideological but I think the panel would be more effective it were. Let’s see who’s in the next 10 appointments

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posted February 5, 2009 at 5:04 pm

Still, even to suggest this group “leans left” suggests to me just how “right” you are …

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Deal W. Hudson

posted February 5, 2009 at 8:36 pm

Steven Waldman is exactly right about the lack of balance on this committee, but I would go further and say there is not a single religious conservative on the committee, and I am familiar with all of them (Just appointing a Baptist does not mean you have appointed a conservative!) Obama has the prerogative to appoint anyone he wants, especially from the people who worked to support his candidacy (rewarding is the main function of these type of committees), but don’t spin a list like this as “balanced.”

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posted February 6, 2009 at 2:32 pm

Well, there’s diversity and there’s diversity. Some on the panel are clearly on-record for supporting the idea that religious grantees are free to violate civil rights law; others aren’t. And as others said, the label “progressive/Obama supporter” is a wide net that includes non-progressive Joel Hunter.
I’m surprised at the number of Evangelicals. You’d never know that Evangelicals aren’t the largest religious group in America.

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posted February 6, 2009 at 2:46 pm

It also appears that there is one openly-gay person on the panel, Fred Davie

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Your Name

posted February 6, 2009 at 5:23 pm

“there is not a single religious conservative on the committee”
Such blarney.
Sorry, but the bulk of these are Baptists, AMEs and Pentecostals.
Not many of those on the “left”, Steve.

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Your Name

posted February 6, 2009 at 5:35 pm

What? No Hindus? No Muslims? No Buddhists? No Raelians? No Taoists?

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posted February 10, 2009 at 12:38 pm

Yes, Eboo Patel is a Muslim– and do you also want him to have people who worship rocks and nature or tribal witchcraft or this that and the other? This council is reflective of the religious traditions of our country and the practices today. Many of these people are promoters of religious tolerance and interfaith collaboration.

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Padma Kuppa

posted February 10, 2009 at 11:28 pm

I am disappointed that there is no Hindu; he made a reference to the 3rd largest faith tradition in the world, and one that embodies freedom of faith in its theology (much as our republic does).

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non-metaphysical stephen

posted February 15, 2009 at 7:59 pm

I’m glad there’s a gay man on the list — and an ordained minister at that. Two of the lies we have to squash in this country is that GLBT folk are anti-religion and that Christianity is anti-gay; maybe having a gay minister in this office can help reveal that many gays are religious and that many churches are pro-gay.

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Shari Hodges

posted June 1, 2009 at 12:38 am

When Obama’s team gets around to checking out the Department of Defense, my ex husband is a senior executive officer right there in Washington DC, and he’s the biggest deadbeat father they got – and nobody so far has advocated a thing for me or my daughter.
You can definitely contact me – I would like my ex-husband called on into these so-called faith based initiative offices and asked why he deserted our daughter? The DOD gave him a security clearance and a big fat salary for 30 years, after he walked out on our daughter and left me to pay for her support.
I think Obama is a bag of wind, and he’s a hypocrite for not repremanding the people who work for the DOD.

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posted November 30, 2009 at 4:41 pm

actually, there is a hindi, muslim, jew, christian, catholic and several others there. not every religion in the world is represented, but most of the major ones are. this is a solid group.

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