MAKING FAITH WORK
Writing on Religion opinion article in The Bennington Banner, March 7, 2009
Mark E. Rondeau
Our nation has a long history of government providing aid to religious entities which provide charitable service to those in need.
Yet, a White House office to aid, facilitate and fund such partnerships did not exist until then-President George W. Bush created the White House Office of Faith-Based Partnerships and Community Initiatives in 2001.
New President Barack Obama, also by executive order, replaced the Bush office with the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Mr. Obama's office includes an all-new policy advisory council made up of experts and activists from both religious and social service circles.
Though noble in its conception, Mr. Bush's faith-based office failed in many ways, and in many circles became yet another hot-button issue in the "culture wars" that President Obama is trying to move the nation beyond.
Mr. Obama himself noted some of these failures on the campaign trail: "Support for social services to the poor and the needy have been consistently underfunded. Rather than promoting the cause of all faith-based organizations, former officials in the office have described how it was used to promote partisan interests. As a result, the smaller congregations and community groups that were supposed to be empowered ended up getting short-changed."
Perhaps the most controversial legacy from the Bush faith-based office is the ongoing
disagreement over whether religious groups that receive government funds should be able to discriminate in hiring for the programs that receive funds. The Bush administration took actions to allow this.
Candidate Obama said he would not allow religious bodies to discriminate in hiring for programs that receive government funds, but he has since directed his Faith-Based Office to consider such hiring on a "case-by-case" basis.
Such waffling may be due less to political calculation than the lack of in-depth study and established precedents in how to conduct such partnerships between the White House and faith-based groups. Regardless of what stance the president eventually takes on hiring, will the next president simply be able to reverse the policy with a new executive order? If the White House faith-based effort is to be an ongoing part of our national life, it should be set on a firmer, more stable footing.
A recent report from The Brookings Institution, co-written by Brookings senior fellow and Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne and Melissa Rogers of Wake Forest University, recommends that the new administration "should call for legislation to establish the broad outlines of policy for the future. It is unfair to expect social service providers to adjust to a new set of policies in this area with each new president."
Other helpful recommendations include forming a commission to study the hiring issue, generating a report for wide discussion within a year; improved monitoring of compliance with church-state safeguards; strengthening protections for social service beneficiaries' religious liberty rights; increasing funding for programs that work; establishing annual hearings to assess progress and problems; and avoiding cronyism and religious patronage with improved peer review, evaluation and accountability.
The president's new Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships could be invaluable in building an effective and stable program with broad-based support.
As he is showing in this time of national crisis, President Obama is not a man for half-measures. A decisive, constitutional, transparent and far-sighted approach to faith-based and neighborhood partnerships could make such cooperation a real force for effective service in a time of extensive need.