Shameless self-promotion: faith-based initiatives

the-faith-based-initiative-1It's an opinion piece, not a news article, but some of you might be interested in something I wrote for the Wall Street Journal's Houses of Worship column yesterday. I took a look at how President Barack Obama's faith-based initiative office compares with Bush's. After reminiscing about some of the warnings that Bush's office was leading the country to a theocratic form of government, I wrote:

Now that Mr. Bush is gone, however, no one seems particularly worried about the entanglement of the federal government with religious organizations. A recent study sponsored by 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."

According to Pew, the media ran nearly seven times as much coverage of President Bush's faith-based initiative during his first six months in office as President Obama's. And the stories on Mr. Bush's initiative were almost 50% more likely to be on the front-page, emphasizing the controversial nature of the program. The stories on Mr. Obama's initiative were buried deeper in the paper and focused on procedure. Few, if any, stories questioned whether the current president would use his office to advance a religious agenda, a major theme of coverage during the Bush ­administration.

This scant media attention is all the more incredible given that, as Americans United for Separation of Church and State has noted, Mr. Obama has left "the entire architecture of the Bush Faith-Based Initiative intact—every rule, every regulation, every executive order." More controversially, the office has become a major hub of political outreach. In frequent conference calls, the administration informs faith-based leaders of its policy initiatives, as when it recently asked rabbis around the country to give sermons on health-care reform during the coming high holiday season. Representatives from politically important religious groups have been appointed to a 25-member religious advisory council. The office was also involved in drafting President Obama's June speech delivered from Cairo calling for alliances with ­Muslims.

In full disclosure, which is pretty easy to discern if you are familiar with my views on church and state, I am not in favor of government funding of religious charities. Mostly because I think it's bad for the religious charities. The point being that I'm not a big fan of either office. I'm sure many readers do not share my views.

But what's interesting is the difference in media coverage. And from what I learned in researching that piece, there's a lot that could be investigated.

So I thought I might highlight a few other recent mainstream media treatments of President Obama's faith-based office. Dan Gilgoff at U.S. News & World Report interviewed Frank Page, one of the members of Obama's Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships:

How involved is the White House in orchestrating the work of the council? Are you and other members free to convene conference calls to make progress in devising policy recommendations?

The White House directs all meetings and calls and brings in all the people who they want to talk to us. There has been little opportunity for self-direction. There was going to be a chairperson named for each of the council's six task forces, but that has not occurred. That said, I do speak with the White House at least every other week.

And USA Today's Cathy Lynn Grossman covered a panel discussion at the Religion Newswriters Association that featured, among others, Gilgoff and Page.

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