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

Obama appoints Josh DuBois, 26, to broaden religious and community outreach.

February 4, 2009, 6:57 PM

Feb. 5, 2009— -- President Barack Obama has named a 26-year-old Pentecostal minister to head the White House office that coordinates outreach to religious and community organizations.

The White House will announce formally today that Josh DuBois will head the revamped White House Office for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, created by an executive order to be signed by President Obama this morning.

DuBois directed the religious outreach for the Obama campaign. Previously, he worked as an associate pastor at a Pentecostal church in Massachusetts and received a master's degree in public affairs from Princeton University.

With this announcement, Obama continues an initiative created by an executive order signed by President George W. Bush in his first month in office.

In the Bush administration, the office was designed to work with faith-based and community organizations on social service issues and to advise them on applying for and receiving federal funding.

The Obama administration will seek to expand the role of this office as it relates to policy issues where religious and local leaders can be effective. DuBois will coordinate with faith-based and community organizations on social service outreach and will work to utilize these organizations' efforts to advance the administration's policies, with a primary focus on poverty.

One prominent progressive evangelical leader said DuBois represents a "new generation of faith leaders."

"He's very bright and very hardworking," said the Rev. Jim Wallis of Sojourners. "He's a good relationship builder, and he's reached out across the political spectrum and cares about policy."

Obama pledged on the campaign trail last year to effectively deliver social services through religious and community organizations because the problems are too big for just the federal government.

"The fact is, the challenges we face today -- from saving our planet to ending poverty -- are simply too big for government to solve alone. We need all hands on deck," Obama said last summer. "I'm not saying that faith-based groups are an alternative to government or secular nonprofits. And I'm not saying that they're somehow better at lifting people up. What I'm saying is that we all have to work together -- Christian and Jew, Hindu and Muslim; believer and non-believer alike -- to meet the challenges of the 21st century."

Obama's experience as a community organizer in Chicago is evident in his administration's approach to aiding those who need it most, according to Sally Steenland, the senior policy adviser for Faith and Progressive Policy at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank.

"As a community organizer, he saw up close what faith-based and community groups could do in helping the poor, in helping working-class families. Very often these groups are the first responders within a community because they are nimble, they are flexible," Steenland said. "President Obama wants to harness that capacity with his dedication to effective social service on behalf of the poor."

Wallis, who was part of a group of religious and secular leaders that advised Obama's team during the transition period, said that religious and community groups are the natural first stop when looking for solutions to improve conditions for those in need.

"If you look at the poorest places in the country, who knows the kid, the family, the streets better than the religious community? We're there; we're working on the ground. When you're there, you get perspective on what works and what doesn't," Wallis said.

Office for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships

The Obama approach will keep the basic structure that the Bush administration took. There will be a White House-based office and Centers for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in the executive agencies.

White House officials and outside advisors say that Obama's effort will be broader than his predecessor's and he will expand the scope of the office to include more emphasis on community organizations and a greater coordination with policymakers.

In meetings with religious and secular leaders since the election, Obama officials have indicated they believe the relationship between the federal government and the faith-based community can be more than a financial partnership and they will look to those groups for guidance and support on stated policy goals like poverty reduction at home and abroad, and international issues like HIV/AIDS work and conflict resolution.

One significant shift from the approach of the Bush administration is to move the faith office under the umbrella of the Domestic Policy Council, directed by Melody Barnes.

By moving it under the Domestic Policy Council, the Obama administration indicates it intends a close link between its policy agenda and how these community groups can accomplish items on that agenda, rather than just directing funding to projects at the local level

A White House official said the office will be a "substantial programming and policy arm of the federal government," and it will serve as the primary mechanism for federal agencies to connect with local community and faith-based groups to provide social services.

Some examples of the programs that agencies run through these local organizations include job training for low-income people through the Department of Labor, ex-offender re-entry programs through the Justice Department and international HIV/AIDS work through the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Jim Towey, the director of the Bush administration's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives for more than two years, said that while he supports the shift, there is a risk that the faith office and its agenda could get swallowed up by the larger domestic agenda.

"If you want the faith-based initiative to work, [DuBois] has to be able to walk into the Oval Office," Towey said. "The reality is, using the president's favorite analogy of basketball, there are 10 people under the backboard looking for the rebound, looking for the time on the president's schedule, and he's going to have to throw elbows to get in there and get time with the president."

White House Reaches All Religions

A new component of the Obama faith initiative will be an advisory council made up of 25 leaders from secular and religious organizations who will provide guidance and policy advice to the faith office.

The White House said the council is bipartisan and will include voices from across the political, religious and community service spectrum. Religious leaders involved in the development of the council said that it is interfaith as well. Each of the 25 council members will be appointed to one-year terms.

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.

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."

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."

"There are so many political issues that are tied to faith-based initiatives that have zero impact on helping the poor but are great Washington parlor games," Kuo said. "To the degree that the iniative is purely focused on the poor, it will receive no press but it will be a success."

Towey has consistently defended his former office against such charges and said this week that the Obama administration may face similar challenges ahead.

"The charge about President Bush's initiative was political, saying he was going to give money to the religious right, and eight years later you look back and the religious right got very little federal money," Towey said. "It will be interesting to see what kind of scrutiny this faith-based office faces as to whether it's a political operation or not. It will be interesting to see how Obama's faith-based initiative looks like when most of the groups getting money are Democratically-inclined.

"Presumably, some of these groups on the council will be receiving federal money and that could be dangerous. It could look to Americans like, if you want to get federal money, you have to play ball with the White House."

Wallis said he has been encouraged by what he has seen so far in meetings with White House officials to develop the goals of the office and said it is the wrong place to have political litmus tests.

"There are people in our conversations that were part of the faith-based office under Bush, in his office, and they're advising the Obama team. And a number of people who were involved in the conversations were McCain voters and Obama voters," Wallis said.

Listen to our interview with Joshua DuBois here.

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