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John DiIulio Previews How Faith-Based Initiatives Would Change if Barack Obama Is Elected President

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 populations.

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.

Also see, Stephen Goldsmith Previews How Faith-Based Initiatives Would Change if John McCain Elected President

Featuring: John J. DiIulio Jr., Frederic Fox Leadership Professor of Politics, Religion and Civil Society, University of Pennsylvania.

Interviewer: Stephanie C. Boddie, Senior Research Fellow in Religion & Social Welfare, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

Navigate this discussion How Obama might expand faith-based partnerships The “moral center” of an Obama administration Three principles for the council Religious hiring 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 concerned.

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 contracts.

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 crime prevention.

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.



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 quarters.

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, 2005.

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 Goldsmith.

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.

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