President Obama’s Faith-Based Initiatives

President Clinton

Version 1.0 of the federal faith-based initiative dates back to the Bill Clinton administration. Congress applied the Charitable Choice provision to three federal programs (welfare services, Community Services Block Grants, SAMHSA’s substance-abuse treatment and prevention funding). President Clinton’s Department of Housing and Urban Development opened a Center for Community and Interfaith Partnerships.

President Bush

Version 2 was the extensive George W. Bush initiative. President Bush created a White House Office for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. He also opened faith-based Centers in 12 major federal agencies to pursue the reforms inside their programs and in state and federal programs that receive federal funding from these agencies. His administration adopted Charitable Choice regulations and created similar Equal Treatment regulations to govern other federal programs. The administration clarified the extensive freedom faith-based organizations have to hire on a religious basis when they receive government funds. And in speeches and visits to local groups President Bush highlighted the vital work that faith-based and secular grassroots organizations perform daily in communities across the nation.

President Obama

To the surprise of many, given Democratic criticisms of the Bush initiative, on the campaign trail in July, 2008, Barack Obama promised that he would preserve and even expand the federal faith-based initiative. Shortly after taking office, President Obama renamed the Bush faith-based office as the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and he appointed Joshua DuBois as its executive director. The President created a new Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. And he said he would maintain the existing 12 faith-based centers in federal agencies.

The President issued an Executive Order amending the directive that created the Bush faith-based initiative. Yet, to the further surprise of many, he left untouched the rules put in place during the Clinton and Bush administrations. On the campaign trail, candidate Obama had said he would ban religious hiring in any social-service program a faith-based organization operates using federal funds. And he alleged that the Bush initiative played loose with the Constitution’s church-state rules. Director DuBois often stresses that a major task of his Office is to make sure that the federal partnership with faith-based groups is on a sound constitutional and legal footing.

Maintaining the Rules. But the existing rules have been kept intact (a legal review process has been created to deal with questions that might arise). The first new grant program the Obama administration created, the Strengthening Communities Fund, maintains the Equal Treatment regulations from the Bush administration. (Such regulations can only be changed through a lengthy process that includes ample opportunity for public comment.)

During the campaign, the transition process, and the early weeks of the Obama administration, faith-based groups that have for years or decades been partners of the federal government warned that any significant change in the rules, such as imposing a religious hiring ban, would require them to break their partnerships, causing chaos in the federally funded services that many people and communities depend on daily.

Innovations. President Obama has made two major changes. One is the Advisory Council, a group of 25 religious and humanitarian leaders who, with the assistance of outside experts, will propose how the federal government can better collaborate with faith-based and community-based groups, especially to meet key administration goals such as promoting fatherhood, reducing global warming, promoting interfaith collaboration, and reducing domestic and overseas poverty. The President says that the Advisory Council is also a way for religious and humanitarian perspectives to be systematically drawn into his administration’s policy discussions.

That list of goals is the second major change. President Bush concentrated on creating a level playing field so that faith-based and smaller groups would have an equal opportunity with secular and large groups to seek federal funds (he also initiated some special programs that draw on the special strengths of religious and secular community organizations). President Obama said he wants to build on those reforms by now concentrating on specific areas of policy where he is convinced faith-based and secular grassroots organizations have much to offer their neighbors and the nation.

Changes Ahead?
Both supporters and opponents of the faith-based initiative will be watching closely. Will the President maintain the level playing rules of the faith-based initiative despite all the pressure for change from critics in his own party? He has stressed that federally funded programs must be effective—an important goal, but will the desire for documented results lead to a bias favoring large groups over grassroots organizations that do much good but don’t spend as much time on paperwork? As the administration draws faith-based and community-based groups close to fulfill specific goals and to gain their insights, will those organizations be able to maintain their independence and innovations, and not become too closely tied to the administration’s priorities and the federal government’s way of doing things?


President Barack Obama, Executive Order 13498 (Feb. 5, 2009), establishing the Obama faith-based and neighborhood partnerships initiative (campaign document) Obama ’08, “Partnering with Communities of Faith

Stanley Carlson-Thies, “Faith-Based Initiative 2.0: The Bush Faith-Based and Community Initiative,” Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, vol. 32, no. 3 (Summer 2009), pp. 931-947.