George W. Bush may have left the building, but the the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives isn’t going anywhere. It’s just being reinvented. In the middle of the presidential campaign last summer, Barack Obama surprised a lot of people from both parties when he announced that the faith-based office not only wouldn’t be eliminated in the Obama Administration but would be expanded. “It never fulfilled its promise,” said Obama, noting that funds for social service programs had been slashed over eight years and the office had been used more for political purposes.
As the first step toward remaking the faith-based effort, Obama has asked Joshua DuBois, who was the director of religious affairs for the presidential campaign, to head the White House office. (An official announcement is expected next week.) The appointment of the 26 year-old, who is also ordained as a pastor in the Assemblies of God denomination, was anticipated inside the religious community and had led to grumbling by a number of faith leaders who worried that DuBois’ age would encourage critics to charge that Obama wasn’t taking faith-based issues seriously.
But DuBois won over a number of skeptics through his work on the transition, which involved unprecedented outreach and inclusion of religious leaders and organization across the ideological and interfaith spectra. Many of those leaders have also told me they feel more confident about DuBois and about the seriousness with which the concerns of the faith community will be considered in the Obama White House because of the presence of Melody Barnes, Obama’s Domestic Policy Council director. In her previous job at the Center for American Progress, Barnes was responsible for developing the Center’s Faith and Progressive Policy project and has long advocated for partnerships between political progressives and faith communities.
However, the White House is reportedly concerned that the appointment of DuBois to a position previously held by heavyweights like the University of Pennsylvania’s John DiIulio and Jim Towey, who had a long political resume including a stint as director of Florida’s HHS, could cause problems. So White House aides have been working this week to pull together a Religious Policy Council made up of leaders from a broad range of religious traditions who would advise the White House not just on issues like religious liberty and faith-based initiatives, but on broader policy matters as well. They are still hammering out the right model–less like the Council of Economic Advisors and more like the President’s Council on Bioethics–but the council will be rolled out at the same time that DuBois’ appointment is announced.
The White House is planning on retaining the faith-based centers currently housed at 11 federal agencies. But there are plans to expand the White House office–tentatively called the Office on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships–to encompass the work traditionally done by religious outreach staff in the Public Liaison Office. Again, the details are still being hammered out, but it looks like the faith-based office will try to blend outreach with a focus on the initiative created by Bush.
Given the goals Obama set out for the office last summer, including the development of a system for assessing and tracking the effectiveness of programs that receive federal grants, and the political challenge of eliminating Bush’s executive order exempting religious organizations from non-discrimination laws, this could pose some significant challenges for DuBois and his colleagues. I’ll have more on that soon in a Time.com story.