Faith-Based Office Not Just about Money, Says Director

The White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships is not a dispenser of government money, said the office's director in a speech Thursday.

One of the biggest misconceptions, contends Joshua DuBois, is that the faith-based office has a "big pot of money" that only a few politically-connected groups have access to.

But this is not true, he said, because there is "absolutely no" funding dedicated specifically for faith-based groups, and the White House faith-based office and affiliated agency centers play no role in decisions about federal grants though they help organizations apply for them.

"And it is this fundamental issue, this dollar-driven mission, that we knew we had to tackle in President Obama's iteration of the faith-based office," said DuBois in his speech at Washington-based Brookings Institute.

While trying to dismiss the image of a federal fund distributor passed down from the Bush administration, the current office is seeking to portray itself as a community organizer of sorts. DuBois says the office's vision is to connect faith-based and neighborhood organizations to tackle specific community problems. In this sense, the office measures its success not on how much federal money goes into faith-based organizations, but on the impact of the partnerships between faith-based and neighborhood groups.

"It's no longer about just dollars and cents. Instead, it's about impacts on individuals, families and communities," DuBois said.

The office under President Obama marked its one year anniversary on Feb. 5. Some raised doubts about whether its affiliated council of advisers has been effective in tackling a handful of specific challenges to U.S. communities.

Frank Page, a member of President Obama's faith advisory council, said his experience working with the 25-member council associated with the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships has been mixed.

Page, a former Southern Baptist Convention president, said on the fatherhood issue it is easy to find common ground among a council with diverse members.

"But even within that, you have to leave your faith at the door in a lot of these discussions," Page said to the Washington Post. "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.

The Southern Baptist leader was also unhappy that the council did not spend more time addressing how to reduce abortion. Page recalled that when the office launched, President Obama said abortion reduction was among the priority issues the council would tackle. But Page said the contentious issue was "quickly taken off the table."

Other members of the council, when asked about its effectiveness, said it is too early to say.

Eboo Patel, director of Interfaith Youth Core, said grading the council needs to wait until a report of recommendations made by the council is given to the president 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."

Among the recommendations is a requirement that houses of worship that receive federal funds establish separate non-profit corporations as a "necessary means of achieving church-state separation." The council voted 13 to 12 in favor of the requirement.

In his address Thursday, DuBois said the council members reach consensus on a majority of recommendations and when they disagree they do so with civility and respect.

"We are very much looking forward to their final report and to receiving their recommendations for how the government and local groups can better serve American families," DuBois said.

The White House official, however, acknowledged that the challenge to the faith-based office's new approach of measuring success by impact is that it takes time. He said what has been done so far is setting up for the future years.

"These and other efforts will take time, as will the broader process of helping to shift how the public views the faith-based initiative," DuBois said. "But we will keep going – with a focus on our long range vision of impacting American communities through innovative, measurable and Constitutional partnerships."

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