White House criticized for 'politicizing' faith-based office
"The government -- and especially those who lead the faith-based initiative -- ought to do everything they can to avoid the appearance and reality of politicizing the initiative," said Stanley Carlson-Thies, a former staff member with President Bush's faith-based office.
A conference call hosted by President Obama and Josh DuBois, director of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, has sparked most of the controversy. During the Sept. 21 call, Obama and DuBois encouraged thousands of faith-based organizations to stand behind the controversial health care law enacted earlier this year.
"I think all of you can be really important validators and trusted resources for friends and neighbors to help explain what's now available to them," Obama said during the call.
DuBois told the faith-based representatives, "Get the word out there, get information out there. Make use of the resources we've described on this call: the website, door hangers, one-pagers and so forth. We've got work to do. These protections, our families need to know these things."
Staffers from the Bush-era faith-based office charged the White House with using the initiative as a way to encourage faith-based communities to embrace Obama's political agenda
In an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, Jim Towey, former director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives under Bush, wrote, "Imagine what would have happened had I proposed that [Bush] use that office to urge thousands of religious leaders to become 'validators' of the Iraq war."
Carlson-Thies, now president of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, called the Obama faith-based office's response to health care reform a "cheerleading effort." In an electronic newsletter for faith-based organizations, Carlson-Thies wrote, "[F]aith-based organizations, no matter how much they collaborate with government, must avoid becoming simple 'transmission belts' of the government's views." The Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance works to protect the rights of faith-based organizations.
Also in response to the conference call, some religious leaders seemed to agree that using the office to promote certain policies is regrettable.
"It's unfortunate that the Obama administration has chosen to highjack the faith-based initiative program for political purposes," said Barrett Duke, vice president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
In an effort to counter the criticisms, DuBois directly addressed the reaction to the conference call. In a blog post on the faith-based office's website, he defended the White House's decision to involve the faith community in supporting health care.
"President Obama has a different vision for our office, one where we partner with a range of organizations not only financially but also civically to help better understand the challenges we face and work together to solve them. That includes reaching out to religious leaders about the health of our communities," DuBois said.
The Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, originally established by Bush early in his presidency, was formed primarily to aid faith-based organizations in competing for federal funds to provide social services. This, however, produced criticism from the political left, which said the office was just a ploy by the administration to continue gaining support from the religious community; critics also suggested it blatantly crossed the line of separation of church and state.
When Obama took office in 2009, many believed he would shut down the office entirely; however, he chose to keep it. Renaming it the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, Obama set out to create an office that would encourage discussion among various religious leaders and focus on specific policy issues.
Frank Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Executive Committee and a member of the advisory council for Obama's faith-based office for one year beginning in early 2009, said Obama's office and Bush's original office share many of the same goals, but the new faith-based office has additional responsibilities. Obama's office not only reaches out to neighborhood and faith-based groups to help them supply social services but, unlike the office under Bush, it provides policy recommendations.
"The objective of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships was to expand the work of the Bush-era Faith-Based Office by including religious leaders to help provide policy recommendations to the president," Page told Baptist Press.
The new office's agenda consists of issues such as inter-religious dialogue, responsible fatherhood, poverty intervention and environmental stewardship. In trying to achieve certain goals in these areas, the group has made several policy recommendations to the president -- including some regarding health care.
Page said cohesion and communication within the advisory group was challenging.
"It was difficult because the divergence of opinion was tremendous," Page said. "The bottom line is that we had to find areas of common agreement and this was done as the agenda was usually fairly clearly set forth by the administration staff."
Despite the tension that seems to have formed between the old and new office members, Page said the new faith-based office was "very congratulatory and affirming of the work that was done during the Bush administration's tenure regarding funding of faith-based initiatives."
Although the office has met some obstacles in trying to accomplish its entire agenda, Page said all the members of the office both during his advisory council membership and now are dedicated to achieving the office's primary objectives.
"One thing I think the religious community should know about the Faith-Based Office is that the staff are genuinely caring persons who are trying to make a difference under very difficult constraints," Page said.
Hannah Cummings is an intern with the Washington bureau of Baptist Press.