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.
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.
People from both sides of the debate have been eagerly awaiting an Obama ruling on the ability of groups that accept federal dollars to consider religious beliefs when hiring. Obama condemned the practice as discrimination on the campaign trail.
But the Obama White House has not moved on his campaign promise to bar religious organizations from considering an applicant's religious beliefs. Last month a frustrated group of 25 liberal organizations sent a letter to Obama chiding him for what they called "no progress at all" on the issue: "we are disappointed that . . . almost every aspect of the Bush Administration Faith-based initiative remains in place."
"This is a huge piece of unfinished business," said Mercer University's Gushee, "and how it gets resolved will be a big deal."
It would likely be a deal-breaker for many religious groups. If forced to follow federal hiring guidelines in exchange for federal dollars, most would likely refuse the money. "Don't force faith-based groups to not be true to their own worldview," Page said he warned White House staffers despite the council's inability to rule formally on this issue. "The government needs to stay out of the inner workings of faith-based groups."
Rabbi Saperstein also wished the council had been allowed to tackle the subject: "If consensus advice of diverse people is helpful to the administration on less contentious issues, how much more so would it be helpful in the most contentious issue?"
The council did touch on some warm-button topics: They debated whether governments should allow religious art, messages, and symbols to be displayed in rooms where faith-based groups deliver services. Here a majority of the council said the administration should not mandate but rather encourage groups to be sensitive. Thirteen out of the 25 members said the government should require houses of worship to set up a separate corporation to receive federal funds.
Still, Gushee cautions that the council's recommendations to tighten the church-state boundary line may make it less likely that religious nonprofits will seek federal funding avenues. The council called for a greater emphasis on the enforcement of church-state rules.
"Government bureaucracy might have a bit of a chilling effect on good-hearted folks who might reasonably say, 'This is something I might not want to get involved in,'" Gushee told me.
Strict interpretation of rules stating that grant funding cannot be used to pay for specific religious activities could become problematic for evangelical groups where treatment strategies are drenched in prayer and Bible study.
While President Bush's initiative strove for enhanced access to funding, Obama's version shifts the focus to programs.
There is a danger in this top-down approach in which the government decides which programs to implement, says Carlson-Thies, who served on the council's church-state task force. He worries about the government micromanaging and secularizing faith-based groups, which could see their creativity stifled as they are forced to pursue federally approved approaches.
"The danger is if the faith-based initiative becomes one of asking the groups to join in on what the federal government has already decided to do," he told me. "The federal government shouldn't just say, 'We've figured out what to do and are happy for you to join us.'"
With the council now dissolved after its one-year term, Page is anxious to see if its 168-page report will be merely placed on a shelf. Obama greeted the outgoing council members in a private March ceremony in the White House's Roosevelt Room, adding in a statement that he "looked forward" to reviewing the recommendations. But not much has come since then.
Suggesting that the faith-based office has moved into the shadows, the council's report generated little mainstream media coverage. In fact, a Pew Research Center study shows that the faith-based initiative received almost seven times as much coverage in the first six months of Bush's presidency as it did under Obama's first half year in the White House.
Time will tell if the intent of the council is merely for political photo-ops with religious leaders or if future councils will carry any meaningful authority. "That just may be a pipe dream," Page told me. "But we need that voice in D.C."
Few are sure what the next step is, beyond the White House's repeated assertions that it will keep fostering communication between religious groups. But the office continues to be burdened by a small staff handling a tremendously broad area of responsibility.
As the faith-based community awaits the naming of a new council, here is one suggestion for their marching orders: Look at social service areas where the federal government can step away because it can be done better by others. Maybe the group can examine how the federal government can support, not supplant, the role of communities.
Obama would be wise to remember his own words spoken last year when he first unveiled the council: "But no matter how much money we invest or how sensibly we design our policies, the change that Americans are looking for will not come from government alone."
Diane Baillargeon, president and CEO, Seedco, a secular national operating intermediary; New York
Arturo Chavez, president and CEO, Mexican American Cultural Center; San Antonio, Texas
Fred Davie, president, Public/Private Ventures, a secular nonprofit intermediary; New York
Joel C. Hunter, senior pastor, Northland, a Church Distributed; Longwood, Fla.
Vashti M. McKenzie, presiding bishop, 13th Episcopal District, African Methodist Episcopal Church; Knoxville, Tenn.
Otis Moss Jr., pastor emeritus, Olivet Institutional Baptist Church; Cleveland, Ohio
Frank S. Page, president emeritus, Southern Baptist Convention; Taylors, S.C.
Eboo S. Patel, founder and executive director, Interfaith Youth Corps; Chicago
Melissa Rogers, director, Wake Forest School of Divinity's Center for Religion and Public Affairs, and expert on church-state issues; Winston-Salem, N.C.
David N. Saperstein, director and counsel, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and noted church-state expert; Washington
William J. Shaw, president, National Baptist Convention, USA; Philadelphia
Larry J. Snyder, president, Catholic Charities USA; Alexandria, Va.
Richard Stearns, president, World Vision; Bellevue, Wash.
Judith N. Vredenburgh, president and CEO, Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America; Philadelphia
Jim Wallis, president and executive director, Sojourners; Washington