It annoys me to no end, church leaders occasionally given to touting political influence within the circles of government. Hubristic self-service is a phrase that comes uncharitably to mind. Put not your trust in princes is another.
So there was a press release some little while back in early February from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America announcing the coming appointment of Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson to the Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. This is a presidential appointment from Barack Obama to Hanson for a one-year term. All twenty-five council members serve one-year terms, or at the president’s pleasure until he gets around to naming a replacement.
This could be a fairly long gig for the bishop, if there is a second Obama Administration. Bp. Hanson and the other appointees were described by the president as “experienced and committed individuals” who “have agreed to join this administration.”
Oh, I hope they have not “joined” the administration. But given that the membership has or at one time did include Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefforts Schori and Sojourners publisher Jim Wallis, maybe “join” is the exact word. To be fair there are a smattering of Jews, Evangelicals, and Orthodox on the council, along with a nun and a lesbian elder from the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches. But to “join” an administration suggests a whole level above “advising” one.
Mind you, this is pretty much the same business created by President Bush’s executive order in 2001 with a couple new flourishes by President Obama. It grants faith-based community organizations access to federal program funds for their projects, given an absence of proselytization. This was the Bush Administration’s foray into “compassionate conservatism,” aimed to aid religiously-inspired community social service groups. It also inspired several orders of howling by Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union and the Freedom From Religion Foundation and, sure, even a pagan group expressed some reservations.
Under the Obama Administration the name got changed a bit and the business was expanded to include creation of the advisory council. So far as I can tell, the appointees are unpaid, save their expenses traveling to meetings where they do the important work of advising the president. The main job of the council, as the Obama Administration’s executive order puts it, is to:
identify best practices and successful modes of delivering social services; evaluate the need for improvements in the implementation and coordination of public policies relating to faith-based and other neighborhood organizations; and make recommendations to the President, through the Executive Director, for changes in policies, programs, and practices that affect the delivery of services by such organizations and the needs of low-income and other underserved persons in communities at home and around the world.
This is laconically reduced in the press release to “make recommendations to the government on how to improve partnerships.” I’m sorry, and I’m not trying to diminish the ego rush that goes with a presidential appointment, but doesn’t President Obama already have a lot of people doing exactly that, “coordinating public policies,” “recommending,” “improving implementation,” and such? Well, it is certainly the case that a great many people think he needs far more help in those tasks than he’s presently getting, so perhaps this will be a good thing all in all.
Maybe by asking I am answering my own question, but why did Bush take such a drubbing on allegedly mixing religion and politics, church and state, and Obama’s expansion of the faith-based initiative goes off with nary a whisper? Possibly people just got used to having it around.
Following the ELCA press release on the bishop’s appointment came another release a day or two later. Here the bishop asserted that his appointment “strongly affirms the involvement of ELCA members” in serving their communities. “We are known as a church,” the bishop is quoted, “whose members roll up their sleeves, get to work, solve problems and give generously. The [advisory] council will provide new opportunities for us to expand partnerships in local and global contexts and to address priorities for our nation.”
Oh, wow. That’s some of that good old American can-do spirit we need to hear more of from the bishop, and all due to his advisory appointment.
So, do I have this right? Hanson’s place on the advisory council “affirms”—let’s use one of my real parishioners—Margaret’s volunteer work with Meals-on-Wheels through our local ministerial alliance Community Assistance Council? Does that mean that without Hanson’s appointment Margaret’s Wednesday morning deliveries somehow suffer from poor affirmation? Thankfully, Hanson’s appointment is just the sort of recognition Margaret needs. If she doesn’t already take Christ for an example, I must make a point of telling her about Bp. Hanson’s appointment.
Say—small subject change here—did you know there is another federal appointee from the ELCA? Richard J. Meier, pastor of Alpine Lutheran Church, Rockford, Illinois, got the job serving on the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee in 2007 as the appointee of then-Speaker of the House Dennis Hassert.
A numismatist of some distinction, Meier and his colleagues render final recommendation on all U.S. coinage designs—the new quarter dollar national park series for instance. They look over designs proposed by the Bureau of the Mint, thumb them up or down, and then pass their decisions directly to the treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner. More often than not Geithner orders the mint to make the design they approved.
Regrettably, the ELCA never issued a press release on Meier’s appointment to the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee of the United States. Of course the press office may not have known about it because Pr. Meier, I guess, just never got around to telling them. I knew about it because I read Coin World. But this is really just uncanny but I remember thinking at the time, Meier’s appointment was a wonderful affirmation of ELCA members who carry around pocket change.
Russell E. Saltzman is pastor of Ruskin Heights Lutheran Church, Kansas City, Missouri. His previous On the Square articles can be found here.