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Religious leaders worry that Obama's faith council is for show

By Michelle Boorstein and William Wan
Wednesday, February 3, 2010; A05

A year ago, President Obama thrilled many religious Americans and worried some secular supporters by announcing that he would not only keep the faith-based infrastructure President Bush had constructed across the government but would expand it, adding a marquee council of faith leaders to advise him.

But as the council prepares to end its first term and issue its report, some faith leaders across the ideological spectrum -- including some Obama allies -- say the operation may be more about window dressing than results.

Critics say that the faith-based office isn't enough of a priority at the White House and that faith leaders who were consulted regularly during the campaign are now simply copied on pro-forma e-mails. They complain that Obama is no longer using the faith language that he employed as a candidate to frame his policy goals, and that before the new faith council convened, some of the most controversial questions, including religious hiring and abortion, were taken off the table.

"We're wondering if religiously driven voices really have a voice at the table," said David Gushee, an evangelical ethicist who has been in regular contact with Obama's team since the presidential campaign. And whether "gatekeepers around the president are thinking he has more important constituencies to pay attention to."

But even critics acknowledge that it is too early to judge the ultimate impact of the largest part of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships -- the 12 offices based in federal agencies meant to create a bridge between faith-based and grass-roots nonprofits and the government. And several members of the faith council argue that it will be easier to measure their results once the president receives their recommendations on fatherhood, interreligious cooperation, economic recovery and other issues.

A low-key strategy

The White House's faith operation and its supporters say they are pursuing a less controversial, more low-key strategy than Bush, who declared it his mission to remove legal barriers for religious organizations so they could work with -- and get money from -- the government.

Joshua DuBois, the office's director, said in an interview this week that his team is helping small faith-based groups around the country do things such as fight H1N1 and home foreclosures. "It takes a long time to measure impact," he said.

The president regularly seeks out religious guidance in shaping policy decisions, DuBois said.

But some of Obama's religious supporters are worried that the progress the Democratic Party has made during the past few years in engaging people of faith is in danger of being lost.

Others, including Jim Wallis, leader of the progressive faith movement Sojourners, who has served on the White House council, said he hopes to see the president engage with the faith community on a much deeper level on domestic and foreign policy. "I want him to listen to faith groups as much as he listens to people on Wall Street," Wallis said. "I want him to listen to faith groups as much as military leaders on Afghanistan."

DuBois, however, said the council's first job is to suggest ways to build bridges between faith-based groups and the government, not to advise the president on policy.

'What happened?'

Stanley Carlson-Thies, who helped set up the Bush office and now sits on one of the Obama faith council's task forces, said he has noticed a change in tone from the previous administration. There had been a clear reaching out to faith groups, he said, but now the attitude is: "We're the government, doing wonderful things, YOU can come join US."

The operation is less visible than before, Carlson-Thies said. "People say, 'Oh, what happened to that faith-based initiative?' "

There is in fact less public talk about the office, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which found that more than five times as many newspaper stories were written about the first six months of Bush's faith office, compared with Obama's (281 to 50). According to researcher Stephanie Boddie, that partly had to do with the church-state legal disputes Bush was tackling.

Under Obama, criticism began soon after he took office, when DuBois announced that the council would not take up one of the most contentious issues: whether faith-based groups receiving public money can discriminate in hiring. While Obama had said as a candidate that he was opposed to such discrimination, DuBois said early last year that the Justice Department would review potential problems "on a case-by-case basis." Asked this week for examples of current cases, DuBois said only that the administration is still reviewing the subject.

Groups that advocate for church-state separation are pushing for Obama to lift Bush-era legal measures that protect the right of religious groups to discriminate.

"The faith-based initiative has serious constitutional defects, and it's time for a fix," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "Billions of federal tax dollars are going out the door without adequate religious liberty and civil rights safeguards."

More diverse voices

The 25-member faith council has won praise for bringing a much wider range of religious voices into the White House than under Bush. It includes people representing various faith groups and political ideologies.

Under Bush, "unless you were part of a specific strain of Christian, it was very difficult to get a conversation with the White House. Now there is sharing of information much more broadly," said the Rev. Peg Chemberlin, president of the National Council of Churches and a council member.

And senior Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett said that DuBois has the confidence and the ear of the president. "Josh has the kind of relationship where he has access whenever he needs it," she said.

Still, for some advocates of a strong faith-based operation, the Obama White House doesn't seem aggressive enough.

"I don't see it getting any press attention or making headway on initiatives in Congress or tackling any of the controversies that need to be addressed," said Jim Towey, director of the office under Bush. "There are worries that all those worst fears about it just being a political outreach office are being realized."

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