A Faith-Based Opportunity for Obama

At the annual National Prayer Breakfast yesterday, President Obama announced the departure of Joshua DuBois, the director of his controversial Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. DuBois, who has long frustrated civil liberties and religious freedom advocacy groups with his resistance to their concerns about constitutional problems plaguing the office, is off to teach at New York University and to launch “a new organization to help organizations and local governments partner with faith based organizations,” a White House official told me. Michelle Boorstein at the Washington Post also reports that DuBois also will be writing “a book of devotionals for leaders based on the ones he sends the president each day.”

A successor has not been announced. But DuBois’ departure gives the White House an opportunity to recast the office with a director focused on overseeing significant constitutional protections, rather than sending the president scripture, tweeting Bible verses, and further entangling the White House with religious organizations.

DuBois has his admirers, to be sure. For many of them, his daily emailed devotionals to the president—which Obama took pains to highlight yesterday—are frequently cited as evidence not only of the president’s piety but also to counter conservative claims that the White House is somehow hostile to religion, or insufficiently committed to the country’s “Christian heritage.” While the president is undoubtedly entitled to receive and read whatever religious materials he desires, should they really be coming from a White House staffer?

Two years ago, Jacques Berlinerblau, the Georgetown professor and proponent of secular government, criticized Obama’s “platitude fest” at the National Prayer Breakfast and compared the faith-based office to the Kremlin. Instead of starting the president’s morning with scripture, Berlinerblau wrote, “I wish Mr. DuBois would start off my morning with explanations of what exactly that Office is doing—a never-ending source of confusion, and even awe, among reporters, policy analysts and professors in Washington, DC.” DuBois has defended his work by claiming that government partnerships with faith-based organizations help serve the needy. Later that year, DuBois told a gathering in Colorado, “If your focus is first and foremost serving people in need, then there’s not a tremendous amount of time left to debate the finer points of the church-state relationship.”

That focus on government partnering with faith-based groups and dismissal of church-state separation concerns has earned DuBois praise from his admirers. As I wrote just last week, John DiIulio, the first director of the previous iteration of the office started by former President George W. Bush, extolled DuBois as “a brilliant young minister with a graduate degree in public administration from Princeton.” Yet for all of DiIulio’s regard for DuBois’ efforts at partnerships and service, there has indeed been doling out of money, as under Bush. 

DuBois’ cozy relationships with religious leaders, particularly aimed at reaching young evangelicals, has caused headaches for the White House, most notably in the scrapped selection of Louie Giglio to deliver the benediction at the inauguration. But that wasn’t the first time DuBois seemed not to grasp the disconnect between his own sought-after religious leaders and the positions of the president. Last year, he came under fire for meeting with the American Bible Society president “to begin a dialogue on the importance of the Bible in the founding of the country.” In 2010, the White House refused to comment on DuBois’ phone call to religious right ideologue David Jeremiah after the latter called the president “a dangerous person” moving the country toward “socialism.” It was obviously an incident the White House would have preferred DuBois just let go.

Boorstein’s piece suggests that some critics believe that the office would have performed better had DuBois been more experienced and the office given more stature. According to this thinking, clashes with Catholic groups, particularly the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, over the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act, could have been alleviated. But as yesterday’s statement from the USCCB on the latest proposed rule from the Department of Health and Human Services on religious exemptions and accommodations made clear, there appears to be little the administration can do to satisfy the bishops. Could that situation have been improved with greater involvement by someone who has dismissed church-state separation concerns?

Something DiIulio observed underscores fundamental problems with the office that have not been addressed under DuBois. Acknowledging that precise figures showing how much taxpayer money funded faith-based organizations, DiIulio nonetheless claimed that faith-based funding has reached record amounts, particularly to Catholic social services organizations. If funding indeed has increased, shouldn’t those details be made more accessible to the public? And shouldn’t that make heightening constitutional protections, such as prohibiting discrimination in hiring based on religion, more urgent? 

Under DuBois, the office has exemplified the divide between professed Democratic concerns over church-state separation and the party’s anxieties about being perceived as hostile to religion. As a candidate, Obama promised strict constitutional protections, only to quietly relent in the face of protests from evangelical figures. Under DuBois’ leadership, the office has elevated the profile of religious leaders it saw as enmeshed in its mission, yet dismissed concerns over church-state separation. With DuBois’ departure, Obama has an opportunity to appoint a new director whose greatest contribution to his administration will not be daily devotionals, but a commitment to the Constitution.