At the National Prayer Breakfast this morning, President Obama took the opportunity announce the creation of the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. From the transcript of his remarks:

Instead of driving us apart, our varied beliefs
can bring us together to feed the hungry and comfort the afflicted; to make
peace where there is strife and rebuild what has broken; to lift up those
who have fallen on hard times. This is not only our call as people of
faith, but our duty as citizens of America, and it will be the purpose of
the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships that I’m
announcing later today.

The goal of this office will not be to favor one religious group over
another – or even religious groups over secular groups. It will simply be
to work on behalf of those organizations that want to work on behalf of our
communities, and to do so without blurring the line that our founders wisely
drew between church and state. This work is important, because whether it’s
a secular group advising families facing foreclosure or faith-based groups
providing job-training to those who need work, few are closer to what’s
happening on our streets and in our neighborhoods than these organizations.
People trust them. Communities rely on them. And we will help them.

I was quite pleased that President Obama specifically invoked a Hadith as part of the general religious tradition of civic service that the OFBNP will seek to uphold. Via Abu Noor at Talk Islam, comes some more detail about the specific aims of this office:

President Obama on Thursday signed an executive order
establishing the new White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood
Partnerships. Among the key points of the White House press release
announcing the office:

There will be a mechanism for the executive director of the office
to work through the White House counsel to seek the advice of the
attorney general on “difficult legal and constitutional issues.” (Obama
had said during the campaign that he would not allow groups to take
religion into account when hiring, but this appears to mean the hiring
issue is still the subject of debate. The Washington Post reports that
and other legal issues will be decided on a “case-by-case basis.”)

In addition to assisting community groups in providing social services,
its goals will include helping to address teenage pregancy and finding
ways to reduce abortion, and working with the National Security Council
to foster interfaith dialogue around the world.
The president also is naming a 25-member advisory council for the
office composed of a wide array of faith leaders, including Religious
Action Center of Reform Judaism director and counsel Rabbi David

It’s not clear whether the OFBNP will have a budget and if so what it will use that funding for; ideally for grants to local community and religious organizations (this would be an ideal mechanism to distribute some of the economic stimulus funds – see the president’s op-ed in the Washington Post). It seems clear that the agenda will be much more ambitious in terms of actually setting policy than President Bush’s faith-based initiative program:

In the White House organizational chart, both the
faith-based-initiatives office and the advisory council will fall under
the purview of the Domestic Policy Council. That decision represents a
significant shift from the Bush Administration, in which the
religious-liaison operation was focused more on outreach than on policy
generation and its stated mission was relatively simple: to expand the
opportunities for faith-based and other community organizations to
compete for federal funds. The faith-based discussion largely centered
on the question of who provided social services, and Bush himself
weighed in on the side of arguing that faith-based organizations could
often provide more effective help than their secular counterparts. 

Obama rejected that approach forcefully in a campaign speech last
July in Zanesville, Ohio, during which he laid out his plans for a
revamped faith-based effort. “We need all hands on deck,” Obama said,
declaring that the problem during the Bush years wasn’t that the right
or wrong organizations were applying for grants but that federal funds
for social services had dwindled considerably. With today’s
announcement and the establishment of the council, Obama has also made
clear that he intends to involve the religious community in issues
beyond federal funding, including more traditional concerns like
religious liberty.

It is quite notable that one of the explicit aims of the OFBNP is to reduce the “need” for abortion, which I think validates the support for Obama by noted conservatives like Douglas Kmiec and Brian McLaren

I do have to disagree with my Beliefnet colleague and Editor Steven Waldman, who feels that  the Advisory Council leans overly left; while it’s true that many of the people named thus far do have progressive political backgrounds, I think it is important to recognize that there are strong conservative voices there already, especially the director Joshua DuBois who spearheaded Obama’s campaign outreach to spiritual groups and who was the driving force behind Obama’s selection of Pastor Rick Warren for the Invocation at the Inauguration. As Steven notes, there are still ten slots open on the Council anyway so it’s really too early to be trying to gauge the political balance; more importantly, I think that the Council’s very purpose is to move beyond the stale political axis. The support that Obama drew from conservatives like Kmiec and McLaren is evidence of that; in fact I think Kmiec would be a natural choice for the Council.

Let’s hope this auspicious beginning has its own momentum. It’s worth noting that John DiIulio, who President Bush tapped to head the office of faith-based initiatives early in his first term, was the first person to resign from that Administration, citing “Mayberry Machiavellis” who undermined his authority by politicizing the office. The emphasis on policy this time around suggests that the OFBNP and the Advisory Council will have more of an opportunity to make a meaningful contribution towards helping ease society’s ills and tap the raw energy of the spiritual community. However, the higher the ambition, the more dramatic the failure – so they must tread carefully indeed, and learn the lessons from the past.

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