On Jan. 29, 2001, the first day of
the first full week of his new administration, President George W. Bush
announced an initiative
to expand opportunities for faith-based and community organizations to partner
with federal, state and local government in the delivery of social services
such as substance abuse treatment, prisoner re-entry and aid to at-risk youths.
During the 2000 campaign, Bush’s Democratic rival, Al Gore, also had promised
to expand government’s relationship with faith-based groups to serve at-risk
It now appears that some version of
the faith-based initiative is likely to continue no matter who wins the 2008
presidential election. On July 1, 2008, Democratic presidential candidate
Barack Obama announced his support
for partnerships “between the White House and grassroots groups, both
faith-based and secular” and unveiled his plans for an expanded program if he
is elected president. Republican presidential candidate John McCain also has
expressed his support
for faith-based partnerships and has stated he “would continue along the model
of” the current initiative should he be elected president.
To discuss how Obama might
implement his faith-based and community initiatives, the Pew Forum posed a
series of questions to John J. DiIulio Jr., who has worked closely with this
issue. DiIulio is the Frederic Fox
Leadership Professor of Politics, Religion and Civil Society at the University of Pennsylvania. He was the first
director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (2001)
and is the author of Godly Republic: A Centrist Blueprint for America’s Faith-Based Future
(2007). He works with numerous faith-based organizations that supply social
services to the poor in Philadelphia
and other cities.
see, Stephen Goldsmith Previews How Faith-Based Initiatives Would Change if
John McCain Elected President
J. DiIulio Jr., Frederic Fox
Leadership Professor of Politics, Religion and Civil Society, University of Pennsylvania.
Stephanie C. Boddie, Senior
Research Fellow in Religion & Social Welfare, Pew Forum on Religion &
Navigate this discussion
How Obama might expand faith-based partnerships
The “moral center” of an Obama administration
Three principles for the council
Working with Congress
“More a social movement than a government policy”
Question & Answer
In July 2008, Sen. Obama announced his plan to
establish a new, "reinvigorated" President's Council for Faith-Based
and Neighborhood Partnerships. "The new name will reflect a new
commitment," Obama said. "This Council will not just be another name on
the White House organization chart - it will be a critical part of my
administration." What exactly is his administration likely to do to
foster government partnerships with faith-based organizations?
I do like Sen. Obama's plan a lot, but, as I stated at the
Democratic National Convention panel on the subject, President George
W. Bush deserves enormous credit for putting "faith-based" into the
policy vernacular and on the national policy agenda to stay. His
multi-billion-dollar, multi-year, faith-inspired HIV/AIDS initiative in
sub-Saharan Africa is enough all by itself to reinforce his claims
about being a compassionate conservative.
Obama's proposed Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood
Partnerships is well-named. Sen. Obama wants to foster interfaith,
ecumenical, religious-secular and public-private partnerships with
faith-based and other nonprofit organizations that constitutionally,
compassionately and cost-effectively supply social services to the
needy and the neglected. He is dedicated to assisting sacred places
that serve civic purposes, but he has a broader vision of religion and
public life in 21st century America. It is a principled and pluralistic
vision that extends to lending diverse religious leaders and faith
communities a real ear in the White House.
That, I believe, is what Obama meant in
July when he stated that the council would be a "moral center" of his
administration, and not only regarding government support for
faith-based and neighborhood partnerships that dispense social
services. As we all know, when it comes to many different international
and domestic issues, business, labor and other key sectors and
interests have long had a voice in the Executive Office of the
President or a place in one or more Cabinet departments and agencies.
Well, religious groups are the largest segment of the nation's
trillion-dollar tax-exempt sector, but how diverse religious leaders
understand issues from international aid to immigration reform, from
environmental protection to health care, does not register so routinely
in the corridors of government. That's unfortunate because, as many
surveys tell us, diverse religious leaders and groups have ideas and
experiences that make what they think about public issues at least as
interesting, eclectic and potentially valuable to policy deliberations
as what other sectors' leaders and organizations have to contribute.
As Sen. Obama explained in his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope,
he certainly does not believe that religion instantly begets
bipartisanship or always serves as a civic tonic at home or abroad.
Still, his overarching conviction is that religion should have a
respected role in the public square, including in the White House, and
that faith-based organizations that are willing to work in tandem with
each other, with secular nonprofits and with government in order to
achieve the common good should be embraced as partners by all
This conviction, and hence his plan for the council, flows from his
own faith life as a committed Christian in the Protestant tradition,
from his years spent teaching constitutional law and wrestling
thoughtfully with First Amendment church-state issues and from his own
experiences working with model community-serving religious
organizations like Catholic Charities.
Most impressive to me, the council plan reflects a balanced, pragmatic
understanding regarding how much civic good can yet be accomplished by
having government at all levels help volunteer-driven religious
nonprofits that selflessly supply myriad social services to all,
including their own needy neighbors: food pantries, drug and alcohol
prevention programs, job counseling and placement centers, homeless
shelters, mentoring programs for children and teenagers, health
screening programs, anti-violence programs and scores more.
As Sen. Obama made plain in July, the
council would follow three principles: First, if you get a federal
grant, you cannot proselytize. Second, you can only use federal dollars
on secular programs. And third, they will ensure that taxpayer dollars
go only to those programs that actually work. That lines up rather well
with my own views and the speech I gave back in March 2001 to the National Association of Evangelicals. So I say, Amen.
During the administration's first year, the council might
orchestrate and oversee a comprehensive review of federal grant-making
and performance that goes far beyond the cursory Unlevel Playing Field report
completed when I was the first "faith czar." But, to borrow a phrase
from Louisiana Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, the council should also
immediately go where "hope hits the streets."
That is, rather than just episodic presidential visits to
faith-based programs, White House photo-op meetings with supportive
religious leaders, one-shot "training conferences" in selected cities
or generic information on federal agency websites, the council is to
work closely, consistently and for real with state and local
governments, with larger religious nonprofits and with colleges and
universities, to establish well-staffed, community-anchored "train the
trainers" centers that can provide tailored information, timely
technical assistance and significant capacity-building support to all,
including politically unconnected grassroots religious leaders and
groups that wish to apply for federal social service grants or
The Obama administration will likely sustain funding for President Bush's worthy HIV/AIDS initiative,
but it will also foster fresh domestic faith-based partnerships without
forgetting the funding and without over-promising. For example, I doubt
that you will hear the council carp about faith-based organizations
being marginalized in carrying out federally funded preschool programs
while federal funding for programs like Head Start shrinks, as it did
after 2001, by almost a billion dollars. I doubt that you'll hear a
call for a greater role for faith-based groups in delivering health
care to needy kids while per capita federal funding for low-income
children's health insurance programs is cut as it was in 2007. I doubt
that you'll hear a "million mentors a year" pledge that gets
progressively scaled back and ends up supporting only a grand total of
barely a tenth that number over five years.
Instead, among the first fully funded Obama faith-based initiatives
will be a $500 million per year program to provide summer learning for
one million low-income children. The money for this initiative is to
come from cost-saving changes in how federal properties are managed,
cuts in federal travel budgets and tweaks to the federal procurement
processes. Other possible initiatives might focus on prisoners,
ex-prisoners and their families, on welfare-to-work programs and on
Sen. Obama has said that in order to receive federal funds
under his program, faith-based organizations "must comply with federal
anti-discrimination laws" and "cannot discriminate with respect to
hiring for government-funded social service programs." Some regard this
as taking the "faith" out of faith-based and community initiatives. How
do you respond to such criticisms?
We await, and I would welcome, a more
forthright, no-qualifiers statement on this subject from the campaign,
but I read Sen. Obama's words to date on religious hiring rights to
support the constitutional, statutory and administrative status quo,
and to support first-order principles of federalism and states' rights
against, on the one side, those who would roll back well-settled
religious hiring rights, and, on the other side, against those who
would radically expand religious hiring rights into a carte blanche to
use tax dollars strictly for same-religion hires.
Let's be clear. Section 702 of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of
1964 exempts religious nonprofits from the prohibition against
discrimination in employment on the basis of religion. Functioning in
their capacities as houses of worship supported by private funds or
donors, this exemption is absolute. But Section 702 also protects their
right, "pervasively sectarian" or not, to take religion into account in
hiring even in their various social service provision operations that
are funded with tax dollars. As a federal court ruled in 2006, it is no
prima facie violation of the Establishment Clause to take tax dollars
without secularizing personnel ranks.
However, under no circumstances is it constitutional or
consistent with any federal statute for any other religious nonprofit
organization to use tax dollars to hire and pay only co-religionists
who profess and practice its particular beliefs and tenets unto
tax-paid work that is or amounts to proselytizing, worship (not social)
services or religious instruction. All tax-funded work must be and be
deemed purely secular in nature.
The so-called Charitable Choice
provision that President Clinton approved as Section 104 of the 1996
federal welfare reform law underlined that well-settled limitation: "No
[public] funds provided directly to institutions or organizations to
provide services or administer programs ... shall be [used] for
sectarian worship, instruction, or proselytization." At the same time,
however, the provision expanded religious nonprofits' rights to use
religious properties for tax-supported social service delivery purposes
without having to remove religious icons, change internal governance or
otherwise secularize their organizations.
Without having to file forms required from all other nonprofits,
religious nonprofits can own tax-exempt property, receive
tax-deductible donations and be eligible for many different government
grants and contracts - federal, state and local. Jewish Federations,
Lutheran Social Services, Habitat for Humanity and most other
faith-based organizations, large and small, national and local, that
receive government aid now manage to serve needy people by the
millions, lead in rebuilding New Orleans and do much other, real good
besides, all without constantly carping about the need for a
constitutional carte blanche to employ only tax-funded co-religionists.
Community-serving religious nonprofits that serve the poor are
concentrated in urban America. Even without any public funding, few
faith-based organizations that serve the urban poor discriminate on
religious grounds against beneficiaries, volunteers and paid staff in
their social services programs. Of necessity, they take in whoever is
in need and accept help from anybody willing to help. The original
justification for faith-based initiatives, from the first Charitable
Choice provision through the first year of the Bush office that I
directed, was to empower these urban religious groups to serve their
own needy neighbors.
In 2001, some religious conservatives who I had watched applaud
Clinton-era Charitable Choice laws suddenly proclaimed that these laws
were weak tea brewed to suit the tastes of secular liberal Democrats.
Their push to insert a sweeping, same-religion hiring "beliefs and
tenets" provision into the Bush faith bill proved disastrous, forcing
then White House Domestic Policy Council Chief John M. Bridgeland to
give much-publicized assurances that the bill would be brought back
into line with the Constitution. President Bush himself talked up
religious pluralism, nondiscrimination and so on. In July 2001, the
provision was stripped from the bill, but the damage was done.
As Mike Gerson, President Bush's former chief speech writer, has
written, since 2001 the religious hiring issue has needlessly and sadly
became fodder in wider culture-war politics. And, while friendly to
federalism norms on other issues, many who favor unfettered, tax-funded
religious hiring rights want to have national law preempt state
constitutions and state and local laws that ban discrimination in
hiring on religious grounds.
By contrast, assuming that the Obama campaign does speak more
plainly about protecting the status quo on religious hiring rights, the
council seems poised to keep the faith in faith-based while keeping
faith with both the Constitution and public majorities.
As surveys suggest, roughly two-thirds to three-quarters of the
public, including majorities in both parties, do not support government
partnering with faith-based groups at all if the groups are
allowed to hire and pay with public money only people who profess or
practice the grantee's particular religion.
Personally, I am a pro-life, born-again Catholic, and I do not
shrink from being called a religious conservative or orthodox believer
myself. The New Testament tells me that Jesus Christ was pretty
eclectic in choosing his disciples. He commanded them to manifest, in
deed more than in word, a preferential love for the poor. Or, as my
catechism teaches, there is a moral obligation to eliminate or reduce
"sinful inequalities" by all means at our disposal, both public and
private. Faith without such works is dead; and, for all the attempts to
confuse or exploit the issue, the religious hiring rights status quo
prevents no organization that really and truly wants to do the Lord's
work, with or without government aid, from doing it.
If he is elected, recent polls
suggest that Sen. Obama will likely work with a Democratic majority in
the U.S. House of Representatives and an increasingly Democratic U.S.
Senate. From your perspective, how open are Democrats to advancing
faith-based and community initiatives?
I can be mercifully brief here. There are more Democrats in Congress
today who are friendly to the approach than was true in 1996 or in
2001, and it makes a big difference that there will be more Democrats
in Congress period in 2010, plus, per the latest polls at least, a
faith-friendly Democrat in the Oval Office and a reliable Democratic
centrist on the issue, Sen. Joe Biden, in the vice president's
There are still maybe several dozen House Democrats who would rather
roll back Charitable Choice than implement or expand it, and most will
still be there in 2010. But in both the House and in the Senate, the
center or center-left bipartisan congressional coalition in support of
the Obama council and related efforts is likely to be fairly robust.
If you want to know just how supportive Democrats on the Hill can
be, consult none other than Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. She supported
Charitable Choice as first lady. She was friendly on faith-based
initiatives to the point of coming in to the Oval Office and discussing
it with President Bush. She gave spectacular public speeches on the
subject in New York on Dec. 17, 2001, and in Boston as late as Jan. 19,
The latter speech by Sen. Clinton included these lines, which are
worth committing to memory: "But I ask you, who is more likely to go
out onto a street to save some poor, at-risk child than someone from
the community, someone who believes in the divinity of every person,
who sees God at work in the lives of even the most hopeless and
left-behind of our children? And that's why we need to not have a false
division or debate about the role of faith-based institutions, we need
to just do it and provide the support that is needed on an ongoing
basis." No one has ever said it any better.
What are your thoughts on the future of faith-based and community initiatives?
America's faith-based future hardly depends, in the end, on what
Washington does. The federal government can help, but "faith-based" is
more a social movement than a government policy. That said, I think the
federal role will be boosted if the Obama administration proves bold
enough to do something like what I recommended in a Time magazine article
and elsewhere in 2007; namely, focus on New Orleans and other places
all across the country that are in desperate need of greater government
support for faith-based social services.
For me, having made a dozen trips there post-Katrina, New Orleans is
perhaps the best barometer. If Washington can do anything good via
faith-based and neighborhood partnerships - and not just do some good,
but do it at scale - then bring it all to post-Katrina New Orleans and
the entire post-Gustav Gulf Coast for that matter.
Bring it to a place where the human, physical and financial recovery
process to date has been led by Catholic Charities and other
faith-based groups working with local congregations and through
ecumenical, religious-secular, public-private partnerships.
Bring it not only to light a single candle rather than curse the
darkness. Bring it to get the "electric companies" - the government at
all levels - more fully engaged in effectively delivering social
services to children, youths and families that, three years after the
federal levees broke, remain in dire need.
I have great faith in the possibility of federal support for
faith-based initiatives, and that faith would be hardly less strong if
I thought a McCain-Palin administration would entrust its kindred
initiative to someone like my friend, former Indianapolis Mayor Steve
Then again, I also just plain have great faith - "hope in the
unseen" - and I also believe in miracles, both spiritual and civic.
Photo credit: AP
This Q&A has been edited for spelling and grammar.