The Faith-Based Office


Say what you like about, George W. Bush’s Office for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives had a real public policy commitment; to wit: “Our Vision is to educate and assist new and
existing Faith-Based and Community Initiatives to apply and
qualify for competitive Federal Funding.” Before his administration was run over by the events of 9/11, George Bush’s most notable–only notable?–policy commitment was to enable religious organizations to put their faith-based shoulders to the public wheel with the help of government funds. He hired the country’s most distinguished academic advocate of faith-based social service provision, John DiIulio, to run the office, and though DiIulio soon departed in anger, federal legislation hit a wall, and the operation became mired in partisan political finagling (see David Kuo’s Tempting Faith), the animating vision of the thing remained in place.

So it was natural that, when Barack Obama announced that he would continue the office under new management, the assumption was that it would have basically the purpose in mind, only in a Democratic way. (For example, on the bitterly contested issue of whether FBOs could discriminate in hiring for publicly funded positions, candidate Obama said no way.) After all, the Office for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships sounds like just another name for the same thing.

But now, in the sixth month of the new administration’s existence, it is becoming clear that it bears only a passing a resemblance to its predecessor. For starters, a large amount of its energy has been spent on creating and managing a 25-person Advisory Board whose mission (according to  William Wan’s GinG account of its conference call last week) is “to find ways faith groups and government can work together on issues
ranging from climate change to fatherless families to abortion rates.”

In fact, there’s nary a mention of faith-based social service provision as such, the Bush office’s raison d’etre. The hiring issue has been off-loaded onto the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. The bottom line is that Obama has turned the office into a broad-gauged exercise in religious outreach, including on the international front. “Neighborhood” is pretty much a dodge. What we’ve really got is, simply, an Office of Faith-Based Partnerships.