On July 1, 2008, Barack Obama gave a speech and interviews in Zanesville, Ohio in which he declared that, if elected president, he would constitute a “Council on Faith-Based and Community Partnerships” in his White House. That day he addressed three separate but related sets of questions about what “faith-based” would mean in policy terms to a President Obama and in an Obama administration.

First, he reaffirmed his own Christian faith, stressed religion’s social importance as a civic asset, and outlined his intention to have religious leaders and individuals be both seen and heard on a wide range of policy matters, not just faith-based programs or the like. “The challenges we face today,” he stated, “from saving our planet to ending poverty, are simply too big for government to solve alone.” Leaders in both parties “have recognized the value of a partnership between the White House and faith-based groups.”

The council, he said, would be in his ear for America’s diverse religious communities. It would advocate for churches, synagogues, mosques, and other religious nonprofit organizations. But religion would now be pretty much on a par in federal policymaking deliberations with business, labor, and other vital leadership sectors that get consulted even when the issue in question is not all or mostly theirs. The council, in effect, would give the faithful and its majority stake in the nation’s $1 trillion a year tax-exempt sector a foot in the Oval Office door, a seat at the Roosevelt Room table, and entrée at cabinet agencies when it came to other policy matters.

Second, the council, Obama emphasized, would keep its eyes on the anti-poverty, community-building prize by focusing strongly on starting or strengthening public-private partnerships involving religious nonprofits that supply social services to needy children, youth, and families. It would be charged with developing practical, cost-effective, non-cumbersome ways to mobilize the larger nonprofits¯particularly the colleges and universities and other well-established nonprofits¯to assist grassroots ministries and smaller religious nonprofits in getting funding availability notifications, preparing grant applications, and collaborating across denominational and regional boundaries.

Third, Obama insisted that he, his council, and his entire administration would never trifle with settled constitutional limits on church—state relations. Still, they would strive to respect diverse religious individuals, identities, and institutions, and be careful to keep government from forcing faith communities to secularize as the price for “partnerships.”

On the one hand, Obama explained, tax dollars would never be used to fund proselytizing, sectarian worship, or religious instruction. All faith-based grantees would be required to serve all eligible persons without regard to religion. Tax money would not be used to fund or subsidize jobs open only to people who profess particular religious beliefs or practice particular religious rituals.

On the other hand, Obama noted, religious nonprofits, including religious congregations and their satellite service organizations (or what the IRS generically terms “churches” and their “auxiliaries”), would retain their tax-exempt status (and without having to file the Form 990 that all other nonprofits must file), retain their right to accept tax-deductible donations, and retain all other existing rights under federal statutory and administrative law.

In the one component of the July 1 speech and interviews that drew much press fire and some Democratic leaders’ ire, Obama indicated that the “partnerships” with government would also permit even strongly sectarian sacred places that served civic purposes to receive government support. He implied¯implied, not stated¯that they would also retain all existing rights under federal statutory and administrative law to take religion into account in employment decisions relating to all non-tax-funded operations and activities.

Full disclosure, as the journalists say: I was contacted by his campaign in June 2008, and I was given an advanced copy of the July 1 speech. I was even asked to come to Zanesville, tour a church with him, and introduce him at the speech, but I did not. I did, however, agree to speak the next month at a faith caucus panel at the Democratic National Convention (and at which panel I concluded by defending President George W. Bush and his faith-based initiative).

Other faith-caucus sessions at the Democratic convention included pro-life speeches. I repeatedly shared with certain top campaign staff my grave concerns about Obama’s past abortion-on-demand positions and also my apprehensions about his failure to clarify his position on retaining existing religious hiring rights. But the religious hiring rights issue was explicitly placed off limits at the faith-caucus panel I attended at the Democratic convention and was not a focus of the advisory committee conversations with the transition team in which I participated after the election.

On January 29, the New York Times reported that Joshua DuBois was to be Obama’s choice to lead the new council. As I was correctly quoted in that story, the 26-year-old Dubois, a Pentecostal minister who received a graduate degree in public administration from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School, has impressed me as a bright, calm, and steady young man who, by all accounts, seems close to the new president. I would add that he did a good job coordinating the aforementioned faith-caucus sessions. During the transition, he saw to it that outgoing Bush officials who dealt with faith-based issues were duly consulted. And I know religious conservatives who, though deeply concerned about what Obama will do on matters such as religious hiring rights, have also been impressed by his intellect and integrity. Good choice.

On February 5, the White House announced that the council, directed by DuBois, would include Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism; Reverend Jim Wallis, bestselling author and editor of Sojourners magazine; and some two dozen other religious and nonprofit leaders. While the initial council roster is somewhat skewed toward religious liberals and political progressives, DuBois and other White House spokesmen took pains to promise that they intended to consult widely, make mid-course corrections, and put off making any sweeping or definitive decisions about contentious issues like religious hiring rights until the council has had time to deliberate about them, and until the Obama Department of Justice has had time to study them.

Fair enough, for now. Given Obama’s decision to have Pastor Rick Warren, a prominent evangelical Christian with a robust anti-poverty ministry that many liberals love but a culturally conservative worldview that many liberals loathe, deliver the invocation at his inauguration, and given how incredibly pressing other, far more important issues like the economy will remain during the new administration’s first hundred days, I am fully inclined to take those assurances about the Obama council’s intended civic ecumenism and openness to making mid-course corrections entirely at face value. In fact, I think the approach is not just politically wise but prudent.

Still, after the first hundred days or so, Obama and his council will not be able to vote “present” on faith-based initiatives. Nor, as they seemed to do recently on abortion, should they expect those who are to their slight right (like some Catholic Democratic leaders) or to their far right (like many Republican evangelical Christian leaders) on issues like religious hiring rights to stay quiet or be satisfied with broad or bipartisan consultations that nonetheless are followed by one-sided policies.

I know from experience as President Bush’s first “faith czar” how thorny the issue of religious hiring rights can be, but I also know that it cannot be avoided, nor should it be. Indeed, like it or not, what faith-based will mean under Obama will depend in no small measure on how he handles the ideologically polarizing, legally entangling, and administratively intricate issue of religious discrimination.

Unfortunately, all the various places that the new president might seek guidance on the issue or get unsolicited advice on it are unlikely to help him resolve it.

For instance, a December 2008 Brookings Institution report, Serving People in Need, Safeguarding Religious Freedom , offers a balanced and detailed analysis of “taking religion into account in government-funded jobs.” In the end, however, the Brookings report’s faith-friendly and progressive-minded co-authors, E.J. Dionne and Melissa Rogers, come down in slightly different places on the issue: Rogers recommends tightening limits on “religious discrimination” while Dionne worries that doing so “could upset some longstanding partnerships in which little discrimination actually takes place,” potentially shutting down church—state social-service partnerships “that have worked well¯and with little controversy¯in the past.”

I am basically with Dionne. Obama needs to ask himself a simple question as a sort of test for all these decisions: Would the changes be good for Catholic Charities and other Catholic community-serving nonprofits (including Catholic hospitals and inner-city schools), or would it harm Catholic Charities or force it or other Catholic places that serve civic purposes to scale back or even shut down?

Faith-based without good civic works is dead. Faith-based that frustrates civic works is worse than no faith-based at all. Unlike some other religious communities, federations, or organizations, Catholic Charities, Catholic hospitals, and inner-city Catholic schools all typically serve people without any regard whatsoever to their respective beneficiaries’ religions, and generally restrict Catholic-only hiring, with or without any public funding, to top employees or key positions. Thus, whether the proposed changes are legislative, administrative, or involve modifying or repealing relevant Bush-era executive orders, if the West Wing phones start ringing off the hook with complaints from Catholic providers, Obama should pay special attention.

Obama is against having the national government preempt state and local laws that restrict religious hiring rights more tightly than federal law itself does. For reasons that in my case, if not in theirs, have everything to do with conservative regard for federalism norms, I think that his position on this is right.

Many states impose severe restrictions on religious grantees, restrictions often rooted in the bigoted, anti-Catholic so-called Blaine amendments or kindred no-aid separation provisions that to this day still foul many a state constitution. By the mid-1990s, the U.S. Supreme Court had declared in over a dozen decisions that partnerships between government and religious organizations are entirely permissible and do not violate the First Amendment’s establishment clause, if the partnerships do not involve using tax dollars or other government resources to make converts, subsidize sectarian worship, or provide religious instruction.

I welcome the court’s flexibility on funding faith-based organizations, detest the Blaine and Blaine-type provisions in state constitutions, and wish that the states would move more fully into line with what federal law allows vis- -vis government partnerships with religious nonprofits. But I would still not have Washington ride roughshod over those state prerogatives, and I reject as empirically specious the notion that public-private partnerships involving faith-based organizations cannot happen at any significant scale unless national law preempts and homogenizes state laws on religious hiring rights.

The small-government Republicans who initially favored Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” because they saw it as libertarianism in religious drag were bound to be disappointed. As the economist Rebecca Blank, has shown, even if all religious nonprofits dedicated all their financial resources (no money for the choir) to delivering social services, they could stand in for only a small fraction of the services that Washington alone finances and administers.

Or, as Obama explained on July 1 in Zanesville, “I’m not saying that faith-based groups are an alternative to government or secular nonprofits. And I’m not saying that they are somehow better at lifting people up. What I’m saying is that we all have to work together¯Christian, Jew, Hindu, and Muslim; believer and nonbeliever alike¯to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century.”

Amen, but no matter how he staffs and structures his council, fleshes out his position on religious hiring rights, or, for that matter, sustains or expands Bush’s best faith-based initiatives, Obama can expect little understanding from most major media including organs that normally fawn over him like Newsweek or the New York Times .

During the first months of Bush’s faith-based efforts, journalists who had witnessed Andrew Cuomo, Clinton’s secretary at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, open the federal government’s first faith-based center and propose greater funding for local religious groups engaged in low-income housing or economic development projects, seemed struck by amnesia, the better to position and depict Bush’s modest plans as novel, radical, and unavoidably opposed to “separation.”

On faith-based issues, most academic and quasi-academic types are only a little more objective, disinterested, or helpful than most journalists. Still, in deciphering and deciding on religious hiring rights and related issues, Obama should look to the aforementioned Brookings Institution on the center-left, to the Center for Public Justice on the center-right, and to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in the middle.

What Obama or his advisors will find if they scour the solid Pew public opinion survey data is that more than two-thirds of Americans, including most self-identified Republicans and Democrats, support faith-based initiatives, but a majority opposes them if the partnerships involve tax monies being used to fund jobs open only to people who profess or practice a particular faith.

In politics as in religion, symbols matter. At the intersection of American politics and religion known as faith-based federal policy, symbols matter tremendously, as does not only what particular policies one ultimately fashions, favors, or fights, but the public moral reasoning, civility, and respect for others by dint of which one decides and goes about implementing key decisions.

On faith-based initiatives and many other issues, both domestic and international, and despite the deeply disheartening and ultimately disaffecting exception of the new administration’s stances on abortion, I presently have the audacity to hope in President Obama and his leadership on faith-based issues.

John J. DiIulio Jr. served as first director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and is the author of Godly Republic: A Centrist Blueprint for America’s Faith-Based Future (University of California Press, 2007) .

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