Obama's faith-based council takes shape, adds UCC member and Disciples leader

Obama's faith-based council takes shape, adds UCC member and Disciples leader

April 06, 2009
Written by Gregg Brekke

Advisers tapped to help guide the White House's revamped faith-based office say their role is still evolving as the initiative expands its portfolio and tries to find its footing in the young Obama administration.

Initial members of the council, who were named in February, opened a two-day meeting with White House officials on Monday (April 6). Nine additional advisers were named to the White House office for religious and community groups, adding a gay rights leader, an Orthodox Jew, a black bishop and others to an eclectic 25-person council.

New members are:

  • Anju Bhargava, founder of the Asian Indian Women of America
  • Bishop Charles Blake, presiding bishop of the Church of God in Christ
  • The Rev. Peg Chemberlin, president-elect of the National Council of Churches
  • Nathan Diament, director of public policy for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America
  • Harry Knox, director of the religion program of the Human Rights Campaign and member of First Congregational UCC in Washington, DC
  • Dalia Mogahed, executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies
  • Anthony Picarello, general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
  • Nancy Ratzan, president of the National Council of Jewish Women
  • The Rev. Sharon Watkins, general minister and president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

The overhaul of the office centers on an expanded mission to go beyond matching faith-based groups with government funds, advisory council members said in recent interviews. One of the biggest changes is asking religious leaders to help shape policy on a number of hot-button social issues, including abortion.

While some viewed the Bush administration's efforts mostly as a one-way directive on how to expand the reach of faith-based groups, Obama's unpaid advisers report more of a two-way dialogue. And the discussion centers on a broader array of issues that allows for more input from beyond the Beltway.

"The sense that you have is that there's really somebody who is listening to what you have to say and will take it into consideration,"
said one adviser, Bishop Vashti McKenzie, who oversees African Methodist Episcopal congregations in Tennessee and Kentucky.

She said the level of communication is "certainly a change from the Republican administration," and also, from the Clinton White House.

"There was some give-and-take," McKenzie said, "but not at this level."

The council is charged with helping shape policy in four areas: economic recovery, abortion reduction, interfaith dialogue and responsible fatherhood. McKenzie, for example, plans to focus her work on the fatherhood program.

Other advisers said they were given a courtesy heads-up as Obama drafted his executive order permitting federal funding of stem cell research, or his nomination of Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius as Health and Human Services secretary. When some members expressed concern about proposed reductions in charitable deductions or rescinding conscience protections for healthcare workers, the White House responded with explanations, they said.

Former Southern Baptist Convention President Frank Page, one of the advisers, said he has been surprised at the rapid pace of some policy decisions - many of which he has not agreed with - but believes his views were heard when he questioned the plan to rescind conscience protections for healthcare workers.

"I felt like there was some listening and some response in that particular issue," he said.

The Rev. Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA and another adviser, said it was helpful when faith-based director Joshua DuBois got on the phone and explained the administration's position on charitable deductions.

"At the same time, we're all thinking, we'll see how it plays out," he said.

Richard Stearns, president of the evangelical relief agency World Vision and a member of the advisory council, said the panel seems to have two roles: serving as "a council of elders" that can offer their expertise to the White House, and also representing their constituents to decision-makers.

"I think there's a broader tent, if you will, in this group," he said. "President Bush's faith-based office, right or wrong, was associated with evangelicals within the faith community. I think this group is broader and is including not just Christians of many stripes but also people of other faiths and people of no faith."

The Rev. Jim Wallis, leader of the anti-poverty group Sojourners and scheduled Grand Rapids Synod speaker, said DuBois should be credited for communicating with people across a range of religious and ideological views.

"It's serious, open discussion," he said. "I think he's getting high marks from people from all sides for reaching out."

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and a member of the advisory council, said the revamped office intends to continue the Bush plans for equal access to federal funding for social service groups, but the outreach from the Obama White House is more substantive.

"The number of conference calls, the number of just individual calls going back and forth, clearly is far greater," he said.

Beyond periodic conference calls between DuBois' office and panel members, the White House also has reached out to critics of some of the early policy actions. The president has met with Cardinal Francis George, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and DuBois met with conservative Christian leaders such as Concerned Women for America President Wendy Wright.

Paul Monteiro, who handles religious affairs for the White House Office of Public Liaison, has made outreach to the black church a priority. He recently spoke on a panel about "The Role of the Black Church in the Age of Obama" and then held a conference call with bishops of McKenzie's AME Church.

"This president, I think more than some of our other recent presidents, sees a lot of policy issues that we talk about as moral issues," he said, from immigration to high percentages of African-American prisoners. "The black church is involved in almost any policy you can think of, and so we welcome different views."

One aspect of the Bush office - partnering faith-based and community groups with federal funds - remains intact, but advisers stress they're not making the decisions on who is or isn't funded.

Melissa Rogers, director of the Center for Religion and Public Affairs at Wake Forest University's School of Divinity, is an adviser and has written a form letter to respond to the "scores" of people who contacted her thinking she has a role in giving out grants.

Monteiro, in his talk at Howard University's Divinity School, stressed that the advisory council to the office is just that - advisory.

"I think there's a misconception that this council is calling the shots," he said. "It's a one-year term because we want to make sure that there are different voices represented."

Council members will advise Obama on coordinating government programs with local community groups, according to the White House. Obama has named four priorities for the faith-based and neighborhood office: poverty and abortion reduction; responsible fatherhood and promoting interfaith dialogue abroad.

In picking a diverse council, Obama fulfilled a campaign pledge to listen to an array of religious voices, said the Rev. Jennifer Butler, executive director of Faith in Public Life, a progressive think tank in Washington. The council includes noted conservatives, like the Rev. Frank Page, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and high-profile liberals, like Fred Davie, the openly gay senior adviser for the non-profit Public/Private Ventures.

"There's always a temptation to just get people on board who agree with you on everything," she said. "But Obama is sticking to his word that he wants to bring diverse Americans together to talk about even some of the most controversial issues of the day."

Whether the council can get anything done is another matter, said Ira Lupu, a professor at the George Washington University School of Law who tracks government partnerships with faith-based groups.

"They'll meet and have task forces and issue reports," he said. "The question is whether they can say anything in their reports that will actually move government policy."

Gay rights leaders said they were heartened by the addition of Knox to the council, but remain ambivalent about the faith-based program in general, especially since the White House has yet to decide whether groups that take federal money can discriminate in hiring.

"I am relieved to see good colleagues on the council," said the Rev. Rebecca Voelkel of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "But we need to see President Obama on a concrete level putting his language of inclusion and justice for (lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender) folks in practice." 

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