Covering the faith in faith-based

955707435_474b94f6e4When the President of the United States appoints an official to lead, say, the Department of Health and Human Services, reporters generally tell their readers or viewers what that person believes about issues relating to health. The same is generally true for positions such as Attorney General or any other position that has some level of autonomy from the chief executive. Executive branch appoints are not the same as appointments to the federal judiciary in the sense that officials serving at the pleasure of the president generally do not have the same level of ultimate autonomy as say a Supreme Court Justice. But personal views, convictions and beliefs do matter, particularly in a sensitive role such as chief of President Obama's new Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

The New York Times' exclusive that President Obama intends to appoint 26-year-old Pentecostal preacher Joshua DuBois to direct the old office of faith-based initiatives covers, in a paragraph or two, matters of personal conviction, but much more leg work must be done if readers are going to get a true idea of what he believes.

Here is the gist of what the NYT has to offer, which I'll readily admit is just now breaking the story, giving little time for in-depth reporting on DuBois:

"He is smart. He is calm. He is steady," Mr. [former chief of the President Bush faith-based initiatives office John] Dilulio said of Mr. DuBois, "and I think he's very close to the new president. He'd be a good guy to do it."

On Capitol Hill, Mr. DuBois was part of a Democratic working group focused on building relationships with religious leaders, especially evangelical Christians alienated by the Republican record on economic inequality, foreign policy and environmental matters. Mr. DuBois expanded that outreach during the presidential campaign by convening house parties of religious voters across the country to present Mr. Obama as a man motivated by his faith.

The most contentious issue that Mr. DuBois will have to help resolve is whether Mr. Obama should rescind a Bush administration legal memorandum that allows religious groups that receive government money to hire only those who share their faith.

Mr. Obama said in a campaign speech last June, "If you get a federal grant, you can't use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can't discriminate against them -- or against the people you hire -- on the basis of their religion."

The issue of religious-based hiring is the big one, and this quote is telling on where DuBois stands, particularly since Obama has already declared his intentions in this area. Much of that will be hashed out by lawyers. And I don't doubt that the press will give plenty of attention to the issue of whether faith-based groups that discriminate in hiring will receive federal dollars. But here is the more interesting question: if and when groups that discriminate in hiring are banned from receiving federal money, will those groups give America's lawyers some extra legal work to create separate secular entities entitled to receive the funds?

You also can't help but notice that DuBois is about as much of a political operative as you will find these days. He makes Brownie look like a mid-level government bureaucrat with a law degree. What does that say about how Obama views this new office, and will reporters cover this aspect before the scandals start occurring? (see here Michael Gerson on Obama's dismissal of a qualified, effective coordinator of the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief in favor of politics.)

An aspect I worry will fall between the cracks is the perspective on what this 26-year-old minister actually believes himself and how that could impact his policies. Here is what DuBois told Christianity Today:

"I'm certainly not a theologian, but there are fundamentals I know to be true. The foundations of my faith are in Jesus Christ and in his teachings, especially addressing the needs of the least of these," DuBois said. "That's certainly a model for me, and that's how I'm hoping to approach my work on the campaign."

DuBois said that while Obama's personal faith (Obama is a member of a United Church of Christ congregation in Chicago) shapes his approach to issues, the senator is a firm believer that church and state should be separated.

Will his campaign approach differ from his approach as a federal official? For more perspective on the origins of his faith, see this Wall Street Journal profile from August 2008:

Mr. DuBois grew up in Nashville, Tenn., and Xenia, Ohio, the stepson of a minister at an African Methodist Episcopal church, a branch of Christianity born in protest against slavery in 1816. His grandmother participated in the 1960 Nashville sit-ins and used to tell her grandson stories about being spat on.

His conservative parents would listen to Mr. Dobson's "Focus on the Family" radio show. Mr. DuBois says he remembers his mother being moved to tears by some of Mr. Dobson's broadcasts.

While studying at Boston University, Mr. DuBois became an evangelical Christian and joined Calvary Praise and Worship Center, a small African-American Pentecostal congregation in Cambridge. He became an associate pastor at age 18. ...

When the short video ended, Mr. DuBois led a discussion about how religious voters can come to terms with voting for a pro-choice Democrat.

"Abortion is certainly a deeply moral issue, but so is struggling to afford decent health care for your family, or straining to put food on your table," he recalls telling the group.

From James Dobson to abortion, what does DuBois actually believe today as a Pentecostal preacher? Wasn't there another former Pentecostal on the national stage that received quite a bit of attention for her religion?

This raises the famous tmatt trio questions regarding the resurrection, salvation and everyone's favorite, sex outside of marriage. Perhaps someone will ask him questions along those lines? As DuBois told Christianity Today, church and state maybe separable, but how does his personal faith shape his approach to these public issues of faith?

Image from Obama-Biden Community Blog.

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