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.
"Some folks on the right and left will have heartburn when they look at the full range of people on this council," said Shaun Casey, a faith adviser to the Obama campaign and an associate professor of Christian ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary.
An early struggle could erupt over how Obama deals with a Bush administration rule that allows religious groups that receive federal funding to hire only staff members who share their faith - a move that critics say puts the government's imprimatur on discrimination. For example, Wallis favors the Bush rule, while another soon-to-be council member, Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, vociferously opposes it.
"These are people who are not used to going along to just get along," Casey said.
For now, however, faith leaders say they have been heartened by the extent to which, during the transition, Obama aides sought their advice on a broader range of issues than even they expected - from domestic poverty to the Gaza conflict. After eight years in Washington's political wilderness, moderate and liberal religious advocates are seeing their stock rise as Obama stitches together a governing coalition aimed at tackling big problems, meeting so often with aides before the Inauguration that there were jokes about setting up bunks for them at the transition office.
Obama, a Christian who worked as a community organizer for Chicago churches, spent considerable time courting the religious community during the election, sending personal letters as early as June 2007 to leaders who were never contacted by other candidates in either party.
Faith leaders say they are already seeing results. Most notably, Obama lifted the ban on federal funding for overseas abortion services, but he did it quietly and privately, heeding advice from the religious community not to follow the example of his two predecessors by tackling the issue on the Jan. 22 anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Instead, he waited until the next day to sign the memorandum.
Members of the council include Wallis; the Rev. Frank Page, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention; and Bishop Vashti McKenzie, the first female bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
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The Rev. Joel Hunter is an evangelical megachurch pastor in Florida who also will join the board. He prayed privately with Obama over the phone on Election Day and participated in a Middle East meeting two weeks ago, at the height of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with Obama foreign policy adviser Dan Shapiro and other faith leaders.
Saperstein counted 24 meetings with Obama aides during the transition. Others reported sit-downs on foreign aid, climate change, immigration and debt relief.
"As they are formulating policy and getting organized, they are having brass tacks discussions with religious groups on what they want to achieve and how to move forward," said David Beckmann, president of the Christian-rooted Bread for the World, which was included in 10 meetings during the transition.
Melody Barnes, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, pointedly told faith leaders during one meeting that they needed to make their congregations understand that solving poverty required more than helping the local food bank, according to one participant.
"It is who you vote for," said Beckmann, recounting Barnes' comments. "She was gracious and pointed in asking church leaders what they are going to do to help people in the pews understand that helping poor people will require change in politics and policy."
And the Middle East meeting in mid-January served as a vehicle for aides to test policy approaches, said attendee David P. Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics at McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University.
"If the Obama administration feels it necessary to put some pressure on Israel to do something different, what they gathered from that particular group was the desire for a more even-handed policy," Gushee said. "They are taking the pulse of religious leaders, so they have a sense of how people would respond if they move in different directions in policy, and how to mobilize public opinion if they need support. They want grass-roots support for tough decisions."
Despite its goal of diversity, some conservative Christian leaders said they don't expect invitations to join the council, given their significant differences with Obama over abortion, gay rights and embryonic stem cell research.
"I don't expect them to be getting routine input from us," said Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, who received one call from an Obama aide.
Bush assiduously pursued the support of Christian conservatives, relying for most of his two terms on key advisers such as Karl Rove to keep leaders on speed dial. Bush used his Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives to cast a wider net, reaching Hispanic and African-American churches with funding grants.
But liberal and moderate faith leaders say they felt left out during the Bush administration and are hopeful that their eight-year struggle for presidential face time may be over.
"They are very aware that in order to sustain broad-based support for cooperation in government, they are going to have to continue to be engaged in a way that leaders will take that message back to their constituencies," said Hunter, a board member of the National Association of Evangelicals. "It is very smart politically, and it is also what public service should be."