Obama Names 26-Year-Old Director of Faith-Based Office

Wallis said the White House will be able to draw on the experience and insight of the members of the council, religious and secular leaders who will work outside of the White House.

"We'll keep doing what we're doing. Some are pastors, theologians, running faith-based organizations, authors; it's a very diverse group," Wallis said.

Legal Challenge

The most contentious issue facing the Obama administration is whether to roll back a Bush administration policy that allowed religious groups that receive government money to take faith into account when make hiring decisions.

Obama indicated last July on the campaign trail that he disagreed with that stance.

"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," Obama said in remarks on faith-based initiatives in Zainesville, Ohio.

The White House will approach this issue on a case-by-case basis for now. The executive order that the President will sign today will create a new mechanism for the director of the faith office to work through the White House Counsel's office and seek guidance from the Attorney General on constitutionality issues, including religious hiring.

"On contentious issues like hiring, the President found that one of the problems with the previous Initiative was that tough questions were decided without appropriate consideration, data, and input from different sides. There were ideological decisions, instead of decisions based in fact," a White House official said. "We think this is a key step forward. It doesn't resolve all issues at the outset, but it does provide a mechanism to address difficult legal issues moving forward."

Bush White House Accused of Politicizing Faith Office

Critics of the Bush administration's approach to faith-based initiatives said the religious groups that were closest to the White House focused narrowly on hot-button social issues like abortion, stem cell research and same-sex marriage, and the administration did not marry the office's outreach with policy development.

"The Bush faith-based office was, almost instead of public policy on poverty reduction ... A substitute for good policy instead of a partner for good policy," Wallis said.

The Bush effort even drew criticism from two former officials who worked in the office.

John DiIulio, the first director of Bush's faith-based initiative, resigned after just seven months in the job. DiIulio, who was a strong supporter of the "compassionate conservative" model that Bush campaigned on in 2000, said later he felt the office had turned into a political operation and that the White House, run by "Mayberry Machiavellians," was using federal funds to reward organizations that were in line with White House policy positions.

Politics and Faith

David Kuo, who served as DiIulio's deputy, left the office and wrote a book that accused the Bush administration of publicly courting evangelical Christians for votes, but speaking derisively of them privately. Kuo agreed with DiIulio that the office was used more for political purposes than for its intended goals.

Kuo's advice to the Obama White House as they launch this initiative: "Don't get bogged down on political issues that don't impact the poor."

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