Where's the Beef on Obama's New Faith-Based Initiative Plan?

| Tue Jul. 1, 2008 10:24 AM EDT

Barack Obama is unveiling a plan to reform and invigorate President Bush's program of faith-based initiatives. In a speech today dedicated to the topic, Obama is expected to point to his own religious background as motivation for the new policy:

"I came to see faith as being both a personal commitment to Christ and a commitment to my community; that while I could sit in church and pray all I want, I wouldn't be fulfilling God's will unless I went out and did the Lord's work."

The plan centers around an office Obama would establish called the President's Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. According to a factsheet provided by the campaign, the primary goals of the council are relatively simple:

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Obama's President's Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships will launch a program to "Train the Trainers" by empowering hundreds of intermediary nonprofits and larger faith-based organizations to train thousands of local faith-based and community-based organizations on best practices, grant-making procedures, service delivery and limitations. The Office will host regular training sessions for selected community training partners. These partners... would be supported to travel to Washington and learn how to train local faith-based and community organizations on accessing federal service delivery dollars, remaining in compliance, avoiding proselytizing, understanding hiring rules, and reporting outcomes.

There is no mention of the goals of the faith-based organizations who receive federal grants through the council, except for a stated desire to close the summer learning gap between poor, minority students and rich, white students. Outside of that, presumably, faith-based groups will be able to set their own agendas. Perhaps more importantly, there is no mention of money — neither Obama's speech nor the campaign's factsheet discuss what sort of funds the council will have to work with, both to run itself and to administer in the form of federal grants to faith-based groups. We don't know if Obama will give more or less than Bush currently does.

The plan is already winning plaudits, despite its lack of details. David Kuo, a conservative Christian who was deputy director of Bush's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives early in the Administration but left and wrote a book slamming Bush's commitment to the cause, calls Obama's plan a "massive deal."

John DiIulio, who was the director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in 2001 and is most famous for the phrase "Mayberry Machiavellis," says, "Senator Barack Obama has offered a principled, prudent, and problem-solving vision for the future of community-serving partnerships involving religious nonprofit organizations."

Obama's plan will have safeguards. From his speech:

Now, make no mistake, as someone who used to teach constitutional law, I believe deeply in the separation of church and state, but I don't believe this partnership will endanger that idea — so long as we follow a few basic principles. First, if you get a federal grant, you can't use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can't discriminate against them — or against the people you hire — on the basis of their religion. Second, federal dollars that go directly to churches, temples, and mosques can only be used on secular programs. And we'll also ensure that taxpayer dollars only go to those programs that actually work.

There's no reason to suspect that Obama's outreach to evangelicals is insincere, but that doesn't mean I can't point out that it's also politically advantageous. (Translation: This isn't necessarily a pander, but it has the effects of one.) Christian evangelicals went 80-20 for Bush over Kerry. The political scuttlebutt says Obama could get one-third to 40 percent, an increase that is made more likely by today's moves. And as Noam Scheiber points out at TNR, there's a ricochet effect here: by proving that he is comfortable working with Christian churches, Obama allays the fears of white, working class voters who may not be evangelicals themselves. And it helps dampen those crypto-Muslim rumors that never seem to go away.

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