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The Root: A Faith-Based Fix
Can Obama's makeover of Bush's faith initiatives speed the economic recovery?

Dayo Olopade
Washington Reporter, The Root
Wednesday, March 4, 2009 12:00 PM

"President Obama ceremoniously scrapped numerous Bush-era programs. And he criticized the Bush faith office during the campaign. But a senior adviser to the Obama campaign on religious affairs said that, from the beginning '(Obama) wanted to reform it, not destroy it.' During a speech in Zanesville, Ohio last July, he praised faith-based groups for fulfilling the Biblical mandate found in Matthew 25: 'treating the least of these as (Jesus) would.' Citing his early work with the Catholic Church on Chicago's South Side, he said, 'while these groups are often made up of people who come together around a common faith, they're usually working to help people of all faiths, or of no faith at all.' The president made much the same point at the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington on Feb. 5, saying: '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.'"

The Root's Washington reporter, Dayo Olopade, was online Wednesday, March 4 to discuss her article on the Obama administration's approach to faith-based initiatives -- and whether it will benefit the slumping economy.

A transcript follows.

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Dayo Olopade: Hello everyone. I really look forward to receiving and answering your questions today. Obama's continuation of Bush's controversial office is a decision fraught with promise but also political peril. I hope this will be a productive talk.

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Laurel: This is tangential, but I think it's an important question.

When "new atheists" like Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins and Jacoby discuss problems brought about by faith, they cite examples from Islam, Mormonism, Catholicism and the Religious Right, but seldom mention the influence of religion in the black community.

In my opinion, no group in America could more benefit from de-religificiation. Of course, there's a cultural barrier in that churches are not just places blacks go for their weekly morality sermon and enrichment activity -- it's the primary exponent of black culture where their values and selves are respected to an extent not present in other parts of society.

But, if you will accept my premise that the black community suffers the maladies of excessive faithiness -- such as low scientific knowledge and lack of mutually shared gender role expectations -- what are the avenues into which secularism could introduce itself into the black community as a viable life-outlook?

Dayo Olopade: The role of the Judeo-Christian tradition in US public life is so pronounced that it's almost impossible to pry religious culture away from American culture. It's historical, it's habitual, and, as Hitchens et al do not hesitate to point out, it's not without its injustices and absurdities. But in the black community in particular it has been a force for good--if not overwhelming good, good enough. Sustained and important civil rights and collective action movements have come out of the black church in the 19th and 20th centuries. Black and other churches do take the community organizing bit very seriously.

But what makes the "new atheists" disregard the black church? Well, I think President Barack Obama put it well when he decried Sunday morning as "the most segregated hour in America." He made this observation during his infamous "race speech" in Philadelphia in 2008. He wasn't the first. Then, he also said this:

"Like other black churches, Trinity's services are full of raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humor. They are full of dancing, clapping, screaming and shouting that may seem jarring to the untrained ear. The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America."

Having visited and written about Trinity for the New Republic, I think that's about right--but I think too many Americans suffer from the "untrained ear" that Obama references. Black churches are impenetrable mysterious places that, even while sharing a denomination with other American traditions, are still seen as alienating, overwhelming, a little over the top.

Likewise, black religiosity is different from other types--it's the reason why many blacks are more conservative than Whites of similar demographic profiles. That's, I think the "excessive faithiness" to which you refer. And that, in a diversifying and yes, less faithful America, is certainly ripe terrain for a real clash of civilizations...

Getting back to the subject of my article--I think this office can create some common ground, where blacks and whites and members of all racial groups are seeing "shovel-ready" projects relating to community uplift as more important than the specifics of who's sleeping with who, or the fight between prayer and medicine.

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D.C.: Hi -- I work for a federal agency that gives grants to FBCOs, and previously have worked for an agency that also grants to FBCOs. In my experience, some FBCOs are unprepared and unable to manage a grant. A federal award isn't free money -- there are many requirements, reporting and otherwise. One FBCO grantee told me that when she was at a conference, she attended a workshop on performance measures and evaluations. Another FBCO stood up and said, "We don't need performance measures -- Jesus will look out for us" to the chorus of many "Amens" from around the room. I admire the mission of FBCOs, but am skeptical of their ability and willingness to produce measurable outcomes and success with federal awards.

Dayo Olopade: Thanks for your question. I think that one of the virtues of the Bush Office--and besides the unseemly conduct of what were essentially re-election campaigns under the guise of faith outreach, there were some--was that it "put in the plumbing," so to speak, helping FBCOs know where and how to look for federal funding. That provided some kind of baseline, which is good.

I don't know if the office under either Bush or Obama will help to better train the groups that are receiving money. I've been told that FBCOs in primarily black communities have often tried to provide services with or without government backing, even under Bush; whether that means they are less prepared to absorb the funding--especially the huge wave that's coming through the Recovery Act--is yet to be seen.

Generally I think you're right to be skeptical of accountability and efficiency with such a large payout. My reporting, however, also suggests that Obama's OFBNP will stress non financial partnerships in order to get information about a range of issues out to communities and to groups that need it. I was surprised to find out, for example, that the department of Agriculture has a faith office within it, placed there to help provide information on nutrition to schools and churches or community centers. So it's plausible that they might help administer or at least strengthen the ability of FBCOs to administer these grants.

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President Barack Obama put it well when he decried Sunday morning as "the most segregated hour in America.": I hope he thanked Richmond's hero Arthur Ashe for that quote.

Dayo Olopade: You're right! He wasn't the first, nor will he be the last to say those words. Attorney General Eric Holder made much the same point in his speech to the Justice Department during Black History Month.

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Richmond, Virginia: One thing that as a faith-based organization we found to be very helpful were the Grant Writing or Navigating the Federal Funding System workshops held by the different agencies for non-profits. Our organization, like many others, but especially faith-based organizations have the ability to turn 1 federal dollar into 10 or 20. Does the Administration plan to continue this type of training? Almost every state has a Faith-based and Community programs liaison and can easily facilitate such meetings if the Administration is unable to do so. Faith without works is dead. I hope the Administration plans on bringing life to our communities, not just words.

Dayo Olopade: Please do see my response to the reader from "D.C." I hope that answers your question as well. I do hope that, for the sake of fiscal responsibility and in recognition of the many millions who will need help during this recession, that efficiency is part of the Faith Office's mandate. And I also hope that the grant-writing workshops continue.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: How does a faith based office handle dealing with churches that include partisan politics from their pulpits?

Dayo Olopade: My understanding is that the government, and the faith office, have no real oversight as to what goes on in the pulpit during any given Sunday, whether the organization receives federal funding or not. Team Obama has said they will not allow any hiring discrimination in churches, mosques, or temples that receive taxpayer money--a significant and pointed overturning of a Bush-era rule.

But proselytizing over a sick patient, or encouraging a hungry soul or recent addict to take a pamphlet or piece of literature as they depart a shelter is a decidedly murky ethical ground. Obama and his advisers say "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." Love it or hate it, they plan to help them--and that is one of the major and more troubling pitfalls of having an office for faith outreach.

I'd just add that many faith groups are operating tax-free to begin with; but using the Office to reach out specifically to these groups and provide them with extra money only complicates the question of what messages public money should endorse.

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St. Mary's City, Md.: Under Bush, the faith-based program was Constitutionally problematic in both principle (because it excluded secular charities) and in practice (because it heavily favored fundamentalist Christian charities over even other Christian ones).

While I applaud Obama for rejecting those restrictions, I see no need for him to include "faith" in the concept and definition of the program. Why not simply refer to it as a charities program without making distinctions between the secular and religious charities? The only such requirement I see is for the program to treat all the religious ones fairly.

Dayo Olopade: I rather agree about "charities" as a bigger tent and better word to encompass the work being done by nonprofits across America and the world.

But, of course, semantics matter. The inclusion of "Neighborhood" in the Obama office's title does suggest that they want a type of secularism to infuse the work that the office performs. And the faith advisory council does have members who represent groups with a purely secular mandate (Boys and Girls Club, SeedCo, Public/Private Ventures) But faith-based *is* an accurate descriptor for what motivates many groups to do good work.

I'm going to share the words of Leah Daughtry, a Pentecostal minister who was CEO of the Democratic National Convention in Denver. This quote didn't make it into my piece, but was still interesting: "If you're driven because you just like organic food and you think people should have good, healthy food, that's great! I'm driven because the Bible tells me I need to feed the hungry. What difference does it make? The goal is we're trying to feed people."

She certainly knows about motivations--she ran the DNC smoothly and with grace. Is her take satisfactory? I say maybe.

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NY, NY: I'm hoping the Obama administration will not use the faith based office in the politicized way that Bush did, but am somewhat fearful given the routine use of scripture in so many of Obama's speeches during the campaign. I'm also concerned about choosing an evangelical to head the office as so many evangelicals are anti-gay and not respectful or supportive of equality for women. I would be encouraged if the striving for fewer abortions was accompanied by better sex education and increased availability of contraception for the poor. I would be further encouraged if HIV was more honestly dealt with in the black and Latino community and that begins with greater tolerance towards gay men in the community. Enough of this down low stuff. Stronger households and better health management would directly affect the economy by preparing people to live their lives fully instead of in shame and poverty. For too long faith has been used to isolate people and to judge them and find them wanting. True faith should be based on love. Positive lives will help the economy more than intolerance ever will.

Dayo Olopade: I share some of your concerns. I'd point you toward the construction of the four main areas the Obama office has tackled are a) abortion reduction, b) reducing poverty, c) promoting responsible fatherhood, and d) promoting interfaith dialogue.

While, certainly, these are goals that overlap broadly with the Christianist agenda for America, I think they are vague enough that many Americans can find some tether, some part of the discussion, to agree with. They were certainly written with "common ground for common good" in mind--that is practically the mantra of all the faith organizers I've spoken with both during the campaign and now in Washington. As with countless other issues during the campaign, they're obsessed with the idea of "turning the page." So it's not about Roe v. Wade, the legal argument, it's about caring for pregnant women or making sure day care and adoption and yes, contraception, are available; it's less about welfare than about financial literacy, etc.

As I write in my article, the Office will now be part of the White House policy shop. That itself is a big change. And again, these 4 areas are coequal and often intersecting policy priorities. (I'm told that responsible fatherhood is actually Obama's favorite.) And for the hottest-button isses, like gay marriage, I'd look for some tentative steps to be made toward equality without getting out of the so-called political mainstream. Obama hasn't been phenomenal on those issues since his election, but he did pick Fred Davie, a black, gay secular nonprofit leader, to join his advisory council--a move designed to heal many wounds and build new bridges, I'd imagine.

As for the HIV / AIDS issue, I'll point you toward a piece at the Root by the unmatchable Kai Wright: http://theroot.com/views/obama-s-not-so-bold-aids-czar-pick

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Washington, D.C.: What will be the metric by which the media will use to measure President Obama's success in this area? How do you measure the effectiveness of a Faith Based Initiative?

Dayo Olopade: I think that success is measured by how many Americans see it in their personal and collective interest to help others. We know the president came to faith relatively late in his life, but it's telling that his embrace of Christianity came as part of his work with the Catholic church on Chicago's south side. Some might decry the conversion narrative as expedient, politically or otherwise, but I think the president realized then that there is an army of individuals who are "close to the ground" and able to reach out where government is too far removed to know or care.

As an extension of his personal faith as well as a pushback against the premise of Robert Putnam's "Bowling Alone," the president would like to harness that energy. The Faith Office isn't the only way--his Youth Service Initiative is another--but as he said at the National Prayer breakfast last month, helping families and individuals in crisis "is not only our call as people of faith, but our duty as citizens of America." It surprises that he and George W Bush would keep the same office around. And it's been a bit funny to watch Obama move from hope-monger to disciplinarian-in-chief, but in this "new era of responsibility" he's always on about, keeping the faith office seems surprisingly natural.

Here's hoping it helps.

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Dayo Olopade: Thanks for your questions; this has been a blast. And keep reading The Root!



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