The summer before Senator Obama was elected president, he invited 30 Evangelical and Catholic leaders to meet with him in Chicago. The purpose of the meeting was transparency about his faith journey. All of us, including Franklin Graham, heard him share his testimony of how he had come to trust Christ as his Lord and Savior.
Months before that, in a personal conversation with Senator Obama, he asked me what I thought was a good direction for faith communities when it came to government activities. He knew that I am a pro-life evangelical that believes the less need for government the better. That’s why he was talking to me. I said, “The faith communities of this nation have way more resources and relationships than are being engaged right now to address our nation’s problems.” He agreed. He said, “But there are certain problems that are too great for the faith communities to solve.” I agreed.
After what I assume were many more conversations with other faith leaders, the newly elected president decided to expand the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives started by President Bush and transform it from a fair-funding administrative program to an effort engaging religious communities via their counsel and their service to our citizens.
Cynical people have interpreted this as political positioning, such as Mr. Towey who has called the president's faith-based office a “farce.” Let me tell you why I am of the opposite view.
As a member of the inaugural Advisory Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, we had a unique opportunity to advise the president in how to best move forward in creating successful faith-based and community partnerships. The president and his staff have gone out of their way time and again to consult with religious leaders and advisors with whom they do not always agree. The Advisory Council was just one example of that.
I have been thrilled to see thirteen agencies in this administration through their Offices of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships seek the input of and partner with faith communities to serve those in need. Through these efforts the administration has taken significant strides to partner with faith-based communities to assist people most in need, such as helping local congregations put their social capital to work by establishing and expanding employment ministries or “job clubs.”
They have also launched a new program to get faith-based and community groups engaged in disaster response, the first time the government has a comprehensive strategy in this area, effectively teaming with faith groups to provide aid to victims and rebuild communities.
Additionally, the administration has vastly expanded efforts to engage faith-based communities as partners in feeding hungry kids in the summer, when so many who rely on meals they get at school struggle to meet their nutritional needs. The Partnership Center at USDA has boasted of adding 200 additional summer feeding sites at congregations around the country literally feeding tens of thousands of kids due to their efforts.
Recently we were honored to host First Lady Michelle Obama at our church along with over 4,000 diverse faith and community leaders to celebrate the anniversary of the Let’s Move initiative. Through this effort congregations around the country are fighting to reverse the trend of childhood obesity and increase health and wellness activities.
These are just a few of the many examples of engagement and partnership under the Obama administration’s Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnership Initiative.
Many persons during an election season judge the faith of leaders simply by their policy stance. And there always will be issues upon which we disagree.
However, demonizing the president, implying a nefarious conspiracy, and ignoring the tremendous advancement that has taken place in faith communities partnering with the government in answering people’s needs is mis-informed and incorrect.
Just a few months after President Obama was elected, he invited me to write devotions (a passage out of the Bible with a brief explanation) for him every week. I am a pastor, so I am delighted whenever there is an opportunity to help someone more personally engage the Bible and know the Lord better. I have prayed and talked with our President consistently, always privately and without publicity. When we are together, we do not talk about politics or policy. We talk about his life, his family, his faith and serving others.
I can tell you that what President Obama is doing through his Administration’s Offices of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, is not about promulgating support for a specific policy initiative or political agenda, instead it is a testimony to his belief in the importance of partnering with religious institutions to improve the lives of families and communities across the country. And that is exactly what his faith-based office is doing.