Evangelicals Raise Concerns on Obama Faith-Based Initiative

The National Association of Evangelicals, the nation's largest evangelical body, welcomed President Barack Obama's commitment to faith-based initiatives, but it also highlighted concerns it has about the expanded role of the new White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

Under Obama, the OFBNP will expand its work beyond social-service programs to include three new major tasks: finding common ground between pro-life and pro-choice Americans to reduce abortions; dealing with specials problems of children raised in fatherless homes; and fostering interfaith dialogue with religious leaders around the world.

NAE legal counsel Carl H. Esbeck believes that the office's "greatly expanded portfolio will quickly overwhelm" the staff that remains about the size of the Bush Faith-Based Initiative.

"To do justice to all four of these charges - from abortion to fatherlessness to reaching out to moderate Muslims - will take a staff five-fold the half dozen employees under President Bush," Esbeck said.

"We do not want the office's social-service outreach to those who serve the poor and needy to get lost among all these added responsibilities just when our nation's needs are heightened because of the economic downturn," he said.

Esbeck was a key architect of the faith-based initiatives program and a prominent supporter of former President George W. Bush's faith-based office.

The NAE, which claims to represent 30 million members, is also worried about whether Obama will maintain his predecessor's hiring policy that allows religious groups to consider religious background when hiring.

"If hiring rights are denied because of a change of leadership at Obama's Department of Justice, many evangelicals will turn away from participation in federal grant programs," the NAE wrote. "That's hardly the 'all hands on deck' approach the President called for as a way to soften the blow of the nation's deepening recession.'"

The organization says it is not opposed to stricter surveillance on how federal money is used by faith-based groups, but says "the same rules should apply to secular social-service providers."

"Failures in regulatory oversight are in the news every day, from the Securities and Exchange Commission to the Food and Drug Administration, and can be just as harmful when the failure occurs at secular organizations as with FBOs," Esbeck wrote on behalf of the NAE.

"[R]egulatory burdens should be the same for all who are similarly situated," he said.

The NAE concluded by applauding Obama for a "good start," but encouraged him to tackle the hard questions in the coming months.

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