Obama's faith-based office criticized

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Before we discuss a new story about problems at President Obama's faith-based office, a bit of context. While funding of religious non-profits did not begin with President Bush, he really took that ball and ran with it. he created the first White House office of Faith-based Initiatives. While the office itself doesn't administer funding -- it was designed as a policy shop -- it worked on getting all the needed regulations in at each agency so that grants could be distributed to religious groups. The actual funds were -- and continue to be -- disbursed through agency grant-making offices that are separate from the White House. For political outreach, the Bush White House also kept a separate liaison team to relate to religious groups.

The complaints about Bush's faith-based office being too political under Bush were usually based on something like this: The faith-based office would go around to various parts of the country and give workshops on how to apply for government funds. Some people said the faith-based office was visiting congressional districts that were in play and that the presence of these White House folks was intended to change votes. Or sometimes Republican incumbents would visit a faith-based charity that was the beneficiary of a federal grant along with the director of the faith-based office. Sometimes huge grants went to religious groups whose leaders had spoken favorably of President Bush. You get the idea. And reporters covered it heavily and were almost unable to discuss the office except in terms of whether there was some dangerous political motive underneath.

Under President Obama, the faith-based office has been used literally to call up religious leaders and ask them for their support. This has happened repeatedly. It happened last year when President Obama needed political help for his unpopular health care legislation. And it happened a few weeks ago for the same reason. In fact, the evidence suggests that political outreach to religious allies has been the main function of the office. The media have largely yawned at this, as tmatt noted last week. It's not that there hasn't been any coverage but, unlike during the previous administration, it's just been shockingly blase and unconcerned. Different partisans defend one office over the other, of course. The media seem to be in one camp. Last year around this time, the Pew Charitable Trusts found that President Obama's "faith-based initiative has so far generated little of the contentious press coverage associated with Bush's effort." The situation has not equalized.

But the use of the office for political help isn't the only newsworthy issue. I've heard from more than a few reporters frustrated with the lack of action and information coming from director Joshua DuBois, pictured here. It's almost impossible to find out what, if anything, the office has done in a non-political sense. In July, Washington Post reporter Michelle Boorstein actually put out an APB to readers for information on what's happening in the office in terms of policy and implementation.

It's very difficult to report when you're not in good communication with the office you're trying to cover. So I was very pleased to see Adelle Banks at the Religion News Service write up a piece headlined "Critics waiting for action from faith-based office:"

Six months after advisers turned in 164 pages of recommendations to the White House's faith-based office, thorny church-state questions remain unanswered and some critics say the office has been used to push the president's health care reform.

Much of the work done by the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships has been low profile, and successors to the blue-ribbon advisory panel that ended its work in March haven’t been named.

Outsiders say whatever progress has been made has been done too quietly and that the White House has dragged its feet on a promise to change Bush-era rules that allow federal grant recipients to hire and fire based on religion.

The article backs up the claims with many quotes from people who served on the task force. They're friends of the administration, but they're concerned at the lack of non-political action. It includes the perspective of DuBois, who says he has started implementing at least half of the 64 recommendations made by the panel, although we don't get specifics. He's quoted making vague statements throughout the piece but it seems like Banks really tries to nail him down a bit. And when he waffles, she simply quotes him that way:

He said the announcement of a new set of advisers, which took longer than he expected, should occur "pretty soon."

RNS also got access to an internal memo showing that the office is working on an executive order dealing with internal reforms. DuBois says that it will be finalized . . . "soon."

There is this paragraph, which needs better sourcing:

The office's low profile has allowed it to fly below much of the political chatter in Washington, until recently when critics charged it was adopting the same practices that dogged the office under former President George W. Bush.

I'm a long-time critic of the presidential faith-based office. I could rant on my own views against the office for hours. I think it's bad for the government, for religious institutions and for people who don't fancy funding religious groups they disagree with. But I don't think the above paragraph is accurate. Critics aren't charging it with adopting the same practices that Bush did. The charges against the two offices are substantially different.

RNS explains the current issue -- the use of the office to ask clergy to be "validators" of the health care legislation that a majority of the country wants repealed.

DuBois strongly rejected the criticism, and said such outreach would continue.

"It is reflective of an important shift from the previous office and those officials ... that really saw faith-based organizations only as recipients of dollars and cents as opposed to important partners on nonfinancial issues, like sharing health care information," he said.

It would really be helpful in a story like this to balance out that quote or give an opportunity to respond. Again, I'm absolutely no fan of this office for a million reasons, but the reality of the Bush office -- particularly under its last director -- was all about partnering with faith-based organizations. The first years were about changing the regulations to allow religious groups to compete for government grants, implementing the initiative in cabinet agencies, and helping launch faith-based offices at the state level. They expanded the office to include international aid. And then they focused on helping the religious groups build their capacity, expanding partnerships between the government and the non-profits and trying to think more strategically about how to address some large problem -- such as the recidivism rate in the prison population.

I happen to oppose all these things and find them a horrible increase in the size and scope of government -- but the way the media covered what that office did bore very little resemblance to what the office actually did. I actually spoke with some people who worked in that office and they told me that they could never get the media interested in their projects such as the Prisoner ReEntry Initiative, a work program that showed a recidivism rate among participants that is half the national average. Or the Access to Recovery program that worked with more than 400 nonprofit partners to provide substance abuse support to 200,000 people. The program showed a higher-than-average reduction in alcohol and drug use. Or the President's Malaria Initiative, a $1.2 billion program that used faith-based and community organizations to educate African community leaders and mobilize grassroots volunteers.

If there is anything like this type of program emphasis happening in the current faith-based office, I will eat my shoe. I mean, I don't think they even have the capacity. Whatever else might be said about Bush's faith-based office, it was led by policy wonks. DuBois is a campaign operative. I think they've basically just made their faith-based initiative office their political outreach arm.

Anyway, the rest of the story includes an update on the big "hiring" issue. The update, according to DuBois, is that there is no update. Religious groups that hire only coreligionists can continue receive federal funds.

So all in all, a very helpful story that shows readers what is -- or isn't -- happening in this office.

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