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Pete Souza/The White House

Invisible hands

Religion | The White House's faith-based office has survived-with its advisory council expired-as a low-priority part of Obama administration

Rabbi David Saperstein had some fears last year after first joining the 25-member interfaith advisory council created by a newly inaugurated President Obama.

"I didn't think a divided council would be an effective way of making recommendations," Saperstein, the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, told me about the diverse group that spent a year debating the role of religious groups before it was dissolved last month.

Obama's year-long "fascinating experiment," as Saperstein describes it, has frustrated some in the faith-based social services community because it forced them to wait on any official ruling on how the new White House would regulate such partnerships. But it has had the political benefit of keeping any faith-based controversy on low boil for much of the year.

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Saperstein said creating such a council, tasked with giving recommendations to the president, is just the kind of thing that a former law professor turned commander in chief would cook up: "We know the president likes to hear differing debate . . . [and] comes to it from the combined passions of an academic and a grassroots activist and organizer," said Saperstein. "He tried to replicate that in the way he structured the council."

Now Obama's version of the faith-based office has celebrated its first anniversary. And in the eyes of many advocates of government and religious partnerships, no major news is better than bad news. After not knowing what to expect regarding the initiative's future under a new administration, advocates say they have guarded optimism because Obama's White House has spent the past year paying lip service to the notion that such a social services partnership should exist.

"If it survived year one under Obama, it will probably be a permanent part of our government from now on," said David Gushee, a Christian ethics professor at Mercer University.

Last year Obama shocked many of his left-leaning supporters when he announced his intention to keep open the office that President George W. Bush created to help religious organizations tap into federal resources for delivering aid. "He gets credit for daring to keep the faith-based initiative alive," said Jim Towey, the second of three directors of Bush's faith-based office. "He could have stuck it in the Smithsonian."

Much to the consternation of the left, the rules developed under Bush are still in place. This continuation and stability is perhaps the biggest victory for the faith-based office, believes Stanley Carlson-Thies, president of the watchdog Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance. This mainstream acceptance of the important role faith-based organizations play in society now seems to cross partisan lines, he said.

But while the clock hasn't been turned back on faith-based groups as some feared, many like Towey worry that the Obama administration hasn't moved the idea forward either. "The good news is, I don't see it doing any harm. The bad news is, I don't think it's been much of a priority," Towey said. "The initiative just seems invisible. It doesn't seem to be anywhere near the center of the president's agenda."

While Obama has mentioned the effort, speaking to the choir in effect, at his first two National Prayer Breakfast speeches, that's about it: no major faith-based public events, no mention of the office in his first State of the Union address, and little priority given to it in the White House's budget proposal.

Much of the faith-based office's work has moved behind the scenes and been conducted by the interfaith advisory council. In March, the council released a list of 60 consensus recommendations on a host of issues. The group spent a year on conference calls and a few in-person meetings examining economic recovery, poverty, the environment, fatherhood, inter-religious cooperation, and the future of the faith-based office.

The group's final report suggests that common ground was found by using broad words like encourage, promote, create, and develop in nudging the government and faith groups toward together combating a wide swath of issues from joblessness to climate change (even asking churches to "green" their buildings).

Frank Page, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, said he is glad that the "challenging year" is over. Page sat on the task force that looked into responsible fatherhood. While he believes good recommendations came from that group, he wishes more progress had been made in other areas.

The council had initially been assigned to come up with ways to reduce the number of abortions. But administration officials quickly took that agenda off the table. The administration also did not let the council debate another hot-button item: religious hiring practices.

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