President Obama’s Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships will mark its first anniversary Friday, but it’s hard to determine whether the office has been successful or not.
The office, in an update Wednesday on its blog, looked back on the past year and said it carried out President Obama’s vision to help the federal government partner with faith-based and non-profit groups to better serve Americans.
Specifically, the office said it helped advance the president’s fatherhood agenda, implementing strategies to address the challenge of absent fathers in communities. It has also built partnerships between federal agencies and local nonprofits on key issues, brought together people across religious lines to work for the common good, and helped local organizations respond to the economic crisis, according to Joshua DuBois, the office’s director.
In his speech at the National Prayer Breakfast Thursday, President Obama mentioned the faith-based office, saying it has built “effective partnerships” on a range of issues, including helping people of different faiths “find common ground.”
But one member of Obama’s faith advisory council questioned whether in an effort to find common ground council members were expected to water down their faith.
“It’s been my honor to work with all these folks, but to be honest it’s been a mixed experience,” said council member Frank Page, former Southern Baptist Convention president, to the Washington Post.
Page served on the fatherhood task force, which he said is an issue that people can easily find common ground on.
“But even within that, you have to leave your faith at the door in a lot of these discussions,” Page said. “You can’t say here’s why fathers ought to do better, this is what encouragement comes from the Bible, how being a better father is a godly, right and biblical thing to do.
“When you have 25 people from such a wide range, you’re virtually reduced to a neighborhood group of folk,” he said.
Page, arguably the most conservative Christian on the advisory council, said he wonders if he was a token member.
When the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships was launched, the president talked about abortion reduction as one of the priorities for the council to tackle, Page said. But the contentious issue was “quickly taken off the table,” the Southern Baptist leader added.
If he was asked again to serve on the council, Page said he would have to think hard about accepting.
But many members believe it is too early to determine how effective the council is.
Council member Eboo Patel, director of Interfaith Youth Core, told the Post that the council’s effectiveness depends on a draft of recommendations on fatherhood, interreligious cooperation, economic recovery and other issues that will be given to the president in early March.
“The question of impact depends largely on what’s done with the report,” Patel said. “We won’t know until the report is sent.”
One thing for certain though is the faith-based office under President Obama has been a lot less controversial than that of his predecessor.
Under the Bush administration, the faith-based initiative receive nearly seven times as much coverage in the first six months of 2001 as it did during the same period in 2009, according to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
The difference in the amount of coverage is due to several reasons including the newness of the program under Bush and the very different situation of the United States in 2001 compared to 2009.
After eight years, Americans became more comfortable with the idea of a faith-based office. Besides comfort level, Americans were also preoccupied with an economic crisis and fighting two wars, resulting in differences in media coverage.
The Pew study found 281 stories about the faith-based office from January to June 2001 in eight major national and regional newspapers. By comparison, there were 50 stories on Obama’s faith-based initiative from January to June 2009.