Obama's Faithful Flock
Reproductive rights activists remain optimistic that Obama will ultimately back a policy that focuses on preventing unintended pregnancies through comprehensive sex education and contraception, along with economic support for women who choose to carry unintended pregnancies to term. The White House's policy discussions on abortion focus on "best practices" for reducing abortion; overturning Roe is off the table. Still, Obama has invited hard-right antichoice organizations like Concerned Women for America into these conversations, as well as advocates of the Pregnant Women Support Act, a bill backed by Democrats for Life and Alexia Kelley. The bill aims to influence pregnant women to "choose life" by bolstering social services for them, but it provides no funding for contraception or sex education.
OFBNP's plan to go into partnership with faith-based groups through federal agencies is premised on the notion that these groups are indispensable to solving problems ranging from healthcare delivery to poverty. "We can't solve these challenges here in Washington," DuBois has told faith groups, echoing Obama's campaign rhetoric on the importance of faith-based programs. Likewise, Jim Wallis has said, "There is more experience and expertise and relationship there in the faith community than in the departments of HHS, HUD and Labor and all that combined," a position he has since extended to include the CIA and the State and Defense Departments. Wallis may have overstated the case, but even many progressives agree that government partnerships with faith-based groups are essential to delivering social services, a practice promoted by Bill Clinton through his charitable choice program. Columnist E.J. Dionne and church-state separation expert Melissa Rogers (who serves on the advisory council), for example, accepted that premise in a December Brookings Institution report recommending changes Obama should make to the Bush program.
Frederica Kramer, an independent social policy consultant to the Urban Institute who is working on a book about faith-based organizations, contests this logic. "There's no empirical basis from existing research and evaluations to say that faith-based groups are better at delivering services," she contends. Kramer says that while faith-based organizations play important roles, such as the disaster response after Hurricane Katrina, "one doesn't want to mistake access like a congregation has for the ability to deliver long-term, professionally based services." Kramer adds that reliance on faith-based organizations poses "the question of what happens to non-adherents or outliers."
Calling the boundaries between the faith and secular content of programs "very porous," Kramer says that eliminating proselytizing is a challenge. "Vulnerable populations are not well positioned to make choices--particularly children, people in court-ordered treatment programs and people with mental health problems."
Another monitoring issue the project faces is untangling faith-based funding streams from general ones. Rob Boston, of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, says, "Rules against earmarking money specifically for faith-based projects--which would be illegal--have created a situation where grants going to faith-based organizations can be masked." As a result, it is hard to know whether federal grant money--disbursed through block grants to states--is being used for faith-based projects and is therefore subject to the monitoring DuBois says he is intent on implementing.
Finally, because Obama has created the OFBNP by executive order (as did Bush), it can be modified--for the worse--by future presidents without approval or oversight by Congress. This is a "major part of the problem," says Gaddy. "We got the office by executive order; we're getting a revision by executive order. The next president could by executive order abolish it or say, I want in the faith-based office a panel of advisers that could tell me how to make this nation more religious."
In the end, progressive religious activists question not only the constitutionality but the entire purpose of the office. "The purpose of government is to serve all the people irrespective of what they believe or, better yet, don't believe," says Reverend Monroe. Obama "is pandering to a very conservative base that raised its horrible head during the Bush administration. He can't find a way to undo that but thinks he can refashion that. But he's actually just re-inscribing the problem."