Assessing four years of Obama's faith-based initiatives

Article Highlights

  • DuBois leaves behind a troubling tendency to scant the office’s core mission in favor of community organizing.

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  • The faith-based initiatives office has made consistent efforts to drum up support for Obama's legislative priorities.

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  • Obama’s second-term faith-based office would be well-served by someone with a more programmatic bent.

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Joshua DuBois is stepping down today as director of the federal government’s Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, as President Obama announced yesterday at the National Prayer Breakfast. He leaves behind a record of faith-based engagement that includes some successes but also a troubling tendency to scant the office’s core mission in favor of community organizing.

As John DiIulio noted last week, faith-based outreach isn’t new. The 1996 welfare-reform law, passed under President Clinton, included a “charitable choice” principle: Faith-based groups were to be able to compete for federal funding on a level playing field with other organizations. In a more well known measure, in 2000, President Bush famously created a White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives to advance this principle.

We quickly forget the accomplishments of the Bush-era faith-based office, but as Chapter Three of "The Quiet Revolution" describes, that version of the faith-based office directly supported over 100,000 social entrepreneurs, hosting 34 regional conferences that promoted practical capacity-building skills for over 30,000 leaders from every state. In 2006 alone, it provided $14 billion in direct funding to faith and community groups precisely the kind of targeted investments that could help us reduce the steep uptick in federal-government transfers we have witnessed these last four years, which all too frequently fosters dependence rather than self-sufficiency.

As DiIulio observes, during Obama’s first term, the faith-based office has emphasized public conversations, interfaith dialogue, and strategizing instead of direct public funding. While the number of faith-based grantees has increased, the office’s conferences these last four years have stressed “insight sharing” over information about new public resources or clear legal protections for faith-based organizations. In fact, despite several (lengthy) sets of recommendations, the office’s own advisory council was fraught with internal disagreement about whether or not to allow recipients of faith-based grants to hire and fire their own employees based on religious criteria. 

The most marked departure from the Bush years is that the office has consistently tried to drum up overt support for the administration’s legislative priorities. It has done so in a way that I believe the press, and certainly Democrats, would have harshly criticized if the Bush administration had done it.

Obama’s office frequently hosted conference calls that gathered more than 1,000 pastors, faith-based practitioners, or grassroots leaders. The topics of these publicly funded calls typically focused on “helping us get the word out,” as DuBois frequently put it, about ways local groups could attain wide-ranging federal assistance:

  • Helping your congregation implement the Affordable Care Act
  •  Attaining veterans benefits for someone you know
  •  Assisting communities with more easily accessing food-stamp (SNAP) benefits
  •  Understanding the grant-making cycle for programs that promote “responsible fatherhood”
  •  Participating in the first lady’s “Let’s Move” initiative
These massive group calls, much like Obama’s iteration of the office itself, reflect the president’s experiences as a community organizer, where faith groups are perceived primarily as crucial building blocks for establishing coalitions and popularizing support for particular ends. If President Bush’s office reflected his experience as a former alcoholic whose life was transformed and set on a different course by the power of faith, Obama’s has been animated by community-organizing principles. Think Cesar Chavez — with power. 

From 2004 to 2008, Joshua DuBois worked for then-senator Obama, and he saw firsthand how important Chicago and other urban congregations were in Obama’s rapid ascendency to national stardom. During those years, Joshua was “a pastor to me,” the president said yesterday, but the faith-based groups he and Obama rallied also shaped public opinion and helped get a man elected to the highest office in the land.     

In my view, Obama’s second-term faith-based office would be well-served by someone with a more programmatic bent: someone such as Ben Seigel, who previously worked at Seedco in New York City and now directs the Labor Department’s faith-based program. With a decade more experience than Joshua, Seigel understands how the White House’s organizing power could help these groups build their capacities, something that was emphasized during the Bush administration. That happens to be one of the office’s core competencies, given its access to Cabinet-level agencies and the Domestic Policy Council. 

Seigel recently led up a “jobs club” initiative at the Labor Department, described in USA Today’s recent story about these clubs, which meet in local libraries and religious buildings. He has a deep history in program replication and helping good ideas move to scale, and he’s used the labor secretary’s bully pulpit to advance smarter technical practices among community-based and faith-based groups. 

Four years ago, I co-authored a transition paper with lots of advice that went mostly unheeded by Mr. DuBois’s office. We recommended strategically building on existing infrastructure set in place by the Bush administration; better appreciating the key roles played by assistant secretaries and deputy secretaries, especially when it comes to integrating promising practices in existing agency programs; promoting a wiser use of intermediaries; encouraging block grants to states; and working in partnership with 29 state-level faith-based offices. You can still read the whole version here.

Mr. DuBois is a nice enough fellow: a 30-year-old Pentecostal minister who departs, I’m told by an insider, “not because of the recent Giglio controversy, but after four years of White House burnout,” to marry and teach a couple days each month in NYC. I hope his successor, whoever he or she may be, will better grasp the power the office holds — that it exists not just to “foster dialogue,” but to deliver concrete training and resources that can help local organizations better equipped than our bureaucracies to provide practical forms of assistance. 

Josh Good is program manager of AEI’s Values & Capitalism Project, an initiative that promotes the morality of free enterprise with college students nationwide.

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