Carrie Budoff Brown
President Barack Obama, who has been reversing course on a host of Bush administration policies, Thursday will make a bid to expand and strengthen one of the programs most closely associated with his predecessor.
George W. Bush created the White House faith-based grant program, and Obama intends to keep the same structure. But Obama is going a significant step further, with the creation of a new board of advisers whose recommendations will be woven directly into his policy-making apparatus.
Under Bush, a White House-based program to encourage grants to faith-based social service programs began with high hopes and a barrage of publicity. But over time this Bush hallmark suffered amid complaints from many of its backers that it had become marginalized and used for partisan purposes by White House political aides.
Under Obama, the President’s Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships will allow 25 faith and secular leaders to provide regular input on policy and to advise the White House faith office, which is tasked with distributing grants. Obama is slated to announce the council Thursday and meet privately with members at the White House.
“The conventional wisdom suggests that, since Bush used much rhetoric about his commitment to working closely with religious leaders and communities, that the new Democrat coming to the White House might seek to diminish the role of religion in his administration,” said the Rev. Jim Wallis, the president of the progressive Christian group Sojourners and a member of Obama’s new council. “But I believe the opposite may turn out to be true. There will be a new paradigm of religious influence under the Obama administration.”
The council will pull together an evangelical megachurch pastor, a Reform rabbi, a former Southern Baptist Convention president and the first female bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The membership is intended to cross the political and religious spectrum, fulfilling Obama’s promise to run an inclusive administration. But with the diversity could come conflict.
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