FAITH IN ACTION
By Katherine Marshall
The meeting room at the Washington office of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life was packed last Wednesday to hear from Joshua DuBois, head of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
All of 26 years old, DuBois quickly dispelled some widely held assumptions. There is no pot of money in the White House, he said firmly, and the purpose of the office is emphatically not to make sure that faith groups get their "fair share" of federal funding. Rather, the job of Dubois' team is to be a catalyst for faith engagement in the context of the government's massive bureaucracies, to "level the playing field."
That means, first, that in the competition for federal funding (including from the stimulus package) faith groups should not be handicapped. That's a stated goal going back several administrations and there's a general sense that the field is more level. But given the deeply complex issues around church and state, it's far from straightforward despite oceans of ink and years of testing. As one speaker pointed out, debates around government and faith are not only about rules. Attitudes of the large and complex government apparatus, where people may not share a full conviction that faith groups do the work best, play important roles.
The challenges DuBois and the administration face are huge. They inherit a complex legacy from the Bush years, a faith office that had its ups and downs. Navigating the rapids of law and practice on religious engagement in policy is full of hazards: hiring practices, perceived bias, murky assessments to prove that programs produce results. And the faith office is clearly besieged by groups with messages, needs and dreams. The economic crisis means that needs are enormous and the organizations with faith connections are right on the spot to hear about them. They want action and action now.
The White House office works with 11 separate offices in different government departments (with one more in formation) that are the go-to points for programs. There's an advisory council and six task forces but it's hardly an empire. So another message was that these are, and will remain, small offices. At full steam, the White House office expects to have 5-7 people, and the 11+ satellites will each hold 3-5 more. Their task is especially daunting given the list of "modest" challenges: environment and climate change, economic recovery, responsible fatherhood, interfaith dialogue and international development.
The American faith agenda is large enough but it pales in comparison to the challenges of bringing faith institutions and ideas intelligently into international affairs. DuBois said his office was actively engaged in President Obama's Cairo speech addressing the Muslim world; he cited interfaith work on malaria and service programs. Nonetheless, in the large agenda he traced, the international dimensions seem the least clearly set out.
The office focuses on the Domestic Council but has, it seems, less engagement on security and international development issues. Here too there is a complex legacy -- the way other countries and communities perceive American policy and culture often has a significant faith lens. Navigating the faith dimensions of international relations is a demanding and sensitive priority and it did not emerge clearly from the Pew event who in the administration can serve as the pilot.
President Obama spoke movingly and with great conviction in Cairo about the links between hope and peace, jobs and security. He recognized that religion is part of the challenge and part of the solution. It's an exciting start. But the "playing field" on the international side is still very rough terrain and it's not easy to see clearly who's there and how they operate. And many voices are warning that the impact of the global economic crisis on the world's poorest communities has only begun to be felt. There's an urgent need to bring the faith dimensions into the discussions about these global challenges.
Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, a Visiting Professor, and a senior advisor for the World Bank.
Posted by: Paganplace | June 15, 2009 7:15 PM
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