WASHINGTON-Joshua DuBois, President Obama's head of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, made a rare public appearance this week in a panel discussion surprisingly absent of both controversy and details concerning government and religious partnerships.
While DuBois remained coy when it came to detailing specifics about the new direction of Obama's version of faith-based and government dealings, the gathering indicated how accepted such collaborations have now become.
Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center recalled the outcry media and policy pundits unleashed eight years ago when then President George W. Bush established the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.
Then, Cromartie remembered, people complained that any formal connections between the government and faith organizations violated separation of church and state notions.
But no such protests or questions about the partnership's legitimacy emerged Thursday during a two-hour long session with DuBois. Rather, questions from secular publications like The Washington Post and Newsweek as well as from organizations such as Georgetown University and the Brookings Institution accepted the idea's mainstream status and focused instead on policy directions.
"Now it is part of the fabric of government," Cromartie said of the partnership.
Still, absent controversy, detailed answers to such policy questions were hard to come by during the gathering at the Pew Research Center. The 26-year-old DuBois rarely strayed from official talking points and generalities when discussing the office's future under the Obama stamp. He said the office is "casting a wide net" as it continues to "fully explore" its role in how to help tackle the "big challenges in this country."
"The answer is not yet, quite frankly," DuBois responded at one point in what was a typical answer to a series of questions about what kind of firm decisions the office had reached.
Four months after Obama created his tweaked faith-based office, DuBois acknowledged that "the slow machination of bureaucracy" has been his biggest challenge.
"It takes two weeks to order staples," he said while recounting how the office is still hiring staff and getting the word out about its existence.
Richard Nathan with the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government lectured DuBois that a key hurdle will be overcoming the layers of federal employees who have more faith in government to solve problems than faith-based organizations.
To the controversy surrounding whether, under the new administration, faith-based groups accepting federal money can hire and fire according to their religious beliefs, DuBois reiterated old remarks that such decisions will be made on a "case by case" basis.
But Nathan, a religion and social policy expert, cautioned that a more decisive position on hiring practices is needed to avoid uncertainty among faith-based groups.
"At some point you may have to come to grips with that more than you want to," he told DuBois.
Stephen Goldsmith, a former special advisor to Bush on faith-based initiatives, advised DuBois not to ignore the importance of values when it comes to faith-based groups. He suggested focusing on a celebration of marriage rather than solely on improving fatherhood, which is currently one of the office's objectives.
The two elder panelists-Nathan and Goldsmith-and some in the audience did not hesitate when it came to offering wisdom to the youthful DuBois, who is saddled with the task of manning a high-profile office with, as DuBois himself acknowledge, no money to disburse and a paltry staff of seven.
"You need to add to your army," Nathan implored.
Instead of doling out dollars, DuBois said his office would seek to connect faith-based and community groups to competitive federal grants already available throughout the government.
DuBois paid tribute to the Bush incarnation of the faith-based office, saying that the Bush team managed to level the playing field for faith-based groups vying for government funds.
He said the new challenge is finding the right policy initiatives for the now competitive faith-based groups. When discussing those specific objectives, DuBois went back to the first press release issued when the White House rebranded the initiative in early February: Those goals include making such groups a part of the economic recovery, supporting women and children through reducing the need for abortion, and fostering international and interfaith dialogue.
As far as how these initiatives would be accomplished, by whom, and using what resources, DuBois answer could best be summed up in two words: Stay tuned.