February 28, 2012; Source: Politico

For two days last week, a small portion of the press reported that President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships had faded into the sunset. Actually, it seems that it disappeared a year ago or more, but it seems few noticed until recently. The council issued a long report in March of 2010, outlining President Obama’s approach to governmental partnerships with faith-based entities, after which the “first advisory council” disbanded, as it was obliged to do on the production of the first report, and half of a “second” advisory council was appointed. But the other half of the appointees were never announced and the panel basically faded into the woodwork. Barry Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, called it “the mysterious, disappearing faith-based council.”

Although the White House said it would finish the appointee process and revive the council, the past year’s inaction suggests that it wasn’t taken very seriously by the White House. Press coverage of the fade-out debated whether the administration’s relationships with faith communities are strong or weak and whether the council could have given the president cover in the recent debates about contraception in the federal health insurance mandate. But the purpose of the council wasn’t political cover, but rather the building and strengthening of relationships between government and faith-based entities.

So why has President Obama’s faith-based council been so ephemeral?

First, observers found the faith-based program had little to say about the major controversies of funding faith-based groups. For example, it didn’t weigh in on the president’s delicate dance regarding funding groups that discriminated, based on religion, in their hiring despite receiving federal funds. In May 2011, when the office might have already been moribund and interred, Jacques Berlinerblau, a Georgetown University religion professor, wondered in the Washington Post “what exactly that office is doing.”

Also, when the president issued an executive order basically clearing federal funding for groups that discriminate based on religion in hiring, he chose not to send his faith-based team to Capitol Hill to explain the order, despite a specific request from a committee headed by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.). At the time, we described the administration’s position as the White House telling Congress, “Don’t ask us about religious hiring and we won’t tell you.” It didn’t strike us that the commission might have been on its last legs or that White House operatives might have had limited faith that the council could stand up to the scrutiny of Nadler and a very upset Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.).

When we interviewed the council’s director, Rev. Josh DuBois, it was clear that the Obama faith-based program was much like the Bush faith-based program. However, Bush’s program included access to the Compassion Capital funding, whereas the Obama program, DuBois explained, “… actually does not do grant funding . . . Instead, we tell organizations where the grants are and let them know what they need to do to apply for them…[W]e’re just sort of pointing them in the right direction.” As much as the Bush program warranted criticism, and we provided it in this investigative piece, there was funding to make the capacity-building real. Money talks, and…well…

But with the benefit of hindsight, it strikes us that there was another element at play. Bush appointed a legitimate theorist behind the faith-based movement to head the program, John DiIulio. To his credit, DiIulio provided a serious purpose and framework for the Bush program, but he couldn’t abide the rampant politicization of the program, and so he left after seven months. Obama didn’t look for a figure like DiIulio, but instead appointed a campaign operative, the twenty-something DuBois, a Pentecostal minister who was the Obama campaign’s director of religious affairs. It would seem like the emphasis of the post-DiIulio faith-based panel (skewered mercilessly in a very public analysis by former staff member David Kuo) continued with a politically-based mollification strategy under DuBois.

The president hardly needed DuBois and the faith-based council to give him political cover on the contraception controversy. He needed a faith-based council to help answer, not sidestep, crucial issues of government funding of religious organizations. He needed a council to provide tangible support, not helpful pointers, to the faith-oriented, community-based nonprofits that want to help people in need with the use of government funding.–Rick Cohen