As it happens, I am a huge and consistent supporter of President Barack Obama and his agenda.  I’ve spent a lot of time explaining and defending his approach to “bipartisanship,” which doesn’t have many friends, left or right, these days.  And moreover, I was originally attracted to him as a presidential candidate in no small part because of his remarkably nuanced understanding of the connection between politics and religion.   

Having said all that, I’m concerned about his recent establishment of an Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in the White House. 

Most politically active religious progressives, I would surmise, feel very differently about this development, viewing it as an important beachhead for their point of view in the nerve center of American government, and an improvement over Bush’s conservative-evangelical-dominated Faith-Based office.  After all, Obama’s God Squad will be led by his former campaign’s religious outreach director, the progressive evangelical Joshua Dubois, and will undoubtedly enlist a variety of other religious Democrats, particularly from the “Come Let Us Reason Together” (CLURT) religious coalition put together by the Democratic organization Third Way.  

But this Office will inevitably be run by a select, and to some extent self-selected, group of religio-political activists, not the full range of America’s faith communities.  And for that very reason, it will constitute an inescapably political organization representing a putative constituency group with narrow and sometimes factional aims.  Here’s how The American Prospect‘s Sarah Posner explains the problem:

Bush’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives was nothing more than a 2004 re-election tool, and Obama, instead of depoliticizing the office, has made it even more political. His campaign’s religious outreach director, Joshua DuBois, is now in charge of the office and is leading the council whose members he got to know in his political role. His job in the campaign was to reach out to religious leaders and constituencies for their vote; now he will be partnering with them on policy questions and federal grants to their organizations, as well as deciding which cases of employment discrimination should be subject to legal scrutiny. DuBois will have to work hard to demonstrate that he’s not rewarding anyone for getting out the vote, giving them a pass on the constitutional questions, or using the office as a re-election tool as Bush did.

I have a more fundamental concern than Posner’s. Maintaning a White House “faith-based” group makes people of faith just another constituency group represented by political commissars who will compete with other constituency-group commissars for influence over administration policies. It puts “God in a box,” as though believers have a different point of view than that of Americans generally concerned with achieving peace, justice, or public morality.  Since a significant majority of our citizens are in fact believers to one extent or another, this marginalizes people of faith, much as the habitual isolation of feminists in a “Women’s Issues” identity-group ghetto marginalizes the majority of Americans who are women. 

If a Faith-Based Office was focused strictly on church-state issues that directly involved and sought to resolve religious-secular conflicts, it could and would be very helpful in that limited realm.  But it shows every sign of seeking to become a plenary advocate for people of faith on a range of issues from abortion to poverty to climate change.  As such, it can’t possibly represent its constituency, and may well sell it short, even as it poses troubling questions about the proper role of religious organizations in the liberal American tradition that has been so beneficial to religious freedom, growth and diversity.   

I’d encourage President Obama to in turn encourage people of faith to engage with his administration, cheek by jowl with each other and with nonbelievers, on the broad front of public policy.  We don’t need our own little public policy bureaucracy, staffed by “representatives” who may be significantly compromised by their inclusion in the charmed circle of insiders, at the expense of their vocation to witness fully for the faith. That’s the dreadful mistake that so many self-appointed Christian Leaders made during the Bush Era.  In that respect, as in many others, some real change is in order.   

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