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A voice on the inside

Politics | Obama launches faith-based panel but changes to religious hiring could be a deal breaker

Issue: "New breed of homeless," Feb. 28, 2009

Frank Page, past president of the Southern Baptist Convention, said he was just as shocked as anyone to get the invitation to join President Barack Obama's faith-based advisory council. But the senior pastor of Taylors Baptist Church in South Carolina prayed and then decided to accept the one-year term, with caveats.

The newly created 25-member council is supposed to advise Obama's White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, a continuation of the office George W. Bush created. The council unsurprisingly tilts left-center, with prominent members such as David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and Sojourners head Jim Wallis. It will formally meet four times a year and have regular conference calls.

"While I have some deep cautions and deep concerns, if I'm at the table I will at least have a voice on the inside," said Page, who already has received angry emails for joining the council. "If I feel that I am just a token conservative, then I will resign immediately and continue to voice my opinion from the outside."

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During the council's initial meeting early this month, Page said both Obama and Joshua DuBois, the 26-year-old head of the faith-based office, asked the council members for their complete and honest feedback. Council members whose organizations receive considerable governmental funding include Catholic Charities USA president Larry Snyder, Public/Private Ventures president Fred Davie, and World Vision president Richard Stearns.

Stanley Carlson-Thies, president of the watchdog Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, called the council "a fair-minded effort" and said churches, religious charities, and schools should be on alert the next four years as the new administration comes to grip with "religious practices that don't fit in the ACLU kind of mold."

At the forefront will be the administration's stance on the ability of organizations that accept federal money to consider religious beliefs when hiring. On the campaign trail Obama spoke out against such practices. Page called any implementation of hiring restrictions a "deal breaker" in his involvement with the council.

World Vision's Stearns, in an email to WORLD, vowed to "vigorously defend" the rights of faith groups to compete for federal funds on a level playing field with secular organizations.

Stearns added that World Vision would be prepared to forgo federal funding if compelled to compromise its ability to hire Christians. "We are not going to give up our identity, our foundation, our mission," he wrote.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said the administration plans to review hiring practices on a case-by-case basis. He said a pattern will soon emerge, and that if hiring restrictions become the norm, "It will suck a lot of the vitality out of the faith-based initiative."

Obama's version of the faith-based office expands its agenda beyond confronting poverty. The Obama message is that the office will reach out to religions around the world, encourage responsible fatherhood, even reduce abortions, but it offered no specifics on that last count.

Jim Towey, the second of three directors of Bush's faith-based office, praised Obama's continuation of the faith-based initiative but wondered whether the new faith office's goals are too broad and too political: "Announcing the initiative and signing the executive order is the easy part. The hard part is finding time to engage the president and engage Congress."

One Bush innovation, the creation of 11 faith-based offices in various departments and agencies, remains in place. White House faith-based office head DuBois, a Pentecostal minister, will have a staff of about 50. Towey noted their large task and said, "I'm hoping along with them."

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee is WORLD's Washington Bureau chief. As a reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, he was embedded with a National Guard unit in Iraq. He also once worked in the press office of Sen. Lamar Alexander.

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