The faith-based initiative 2.0: Obama’s new approach

Polls show that the faith-based concept remains popular among the public, just as it was when the program began under Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush. But church-state questions about how to funnel taxpayer dollars to religious institutions have bedeviled the White House program from the start. Obama campaigned on a pledge to bar funds from houses of worship that would use the money to proselytize or discriminate in hiring on the basis of a prospective employee’s religion and beliefs.

But those principles have proved difficult to codify in black-and-white regulations. As a result, Obama’s faith-based office has been accused on the one hand of allowing too much freedom for religious groups that receive federal funds, and on the other of not allowing religious groups enough leeway to use the funds as they see fit. Others have criticized the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships for not moving quickly enough given the state of the economy and the increasing social welfare needs, or for not giving faith leaders enough influence.

Certainly, the faith-based initiative that was a hallmark of the Bush White House is not going to disappear under Obama. In fact, the program will expand its mission to “foster interfaith dialogue with leaders and scholars around the world,” according to the White House news release in February 2009 announcing the revamped office. How that will play out for houses of worship and religious institutions across the country that provide social services is a topic of much debate, even after Obama approves or rejects the proposals being sent to him by the advisory council.

This edition of ReligionLink provides background on the debate, as well as resources and experts for covering the changing landscape of the faith-based initiative in the Obama administration.


According to Ira “Chip” Lupu, F. Elwood and Eleanor Davis Professor of Law at the George Washington University Law School, there have been “three critical periods in the federal government’s changing policy on this issue: between 1972 and 1996, between 1996 and 2001, and between 2001 and today [2009].” In a January 2009 Q&A with the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, Lupu said that the trend has been toward greater church-state partnerships.

Throughout this development, the chief area of dispute has been the hiring practices of religious institutions that receive federal funds. Religious institutions set up as adjuncts of houses of worship have been able to receive funds, with the stipulation that they be used for secular purposes and not proselytizing, for example. Yet just what constitutes a “secular purpose” is a matter of dispute. And how and when such federally funded faith-based groups can choose to hire employees according to their religion remains an unsettled controversy.

In a July 2008 speech during the presidential campaign, Obama said he would expand the delivery of social services through churches and religious institutions. But his proposed plan would not allow those groups that take federal funds to discriminate in hiring.

As president, Obama appeared to amend that stand by leaving open the possibility that religious groups could use religious criteria for some hiring. Obama made that point at the National Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 5, 2009, when he announced the creation of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, which in many respects appears similar to his predecessor’s White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. The new office reports to the White House’s policy arm rather than the political office, as it did under Bush. The “politicization” under Bush drew fire from some critics, including a former faith-based office staffer, David Kuo. Kuo wrote a book, Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction, that outlined the alleged problems.

The Obama version of the office has not been without its controversies. Obama appointed Joshua DuBois, a young Pentecostal pastor who led the Obama campaign’s religious outreach program, to head the office. But experts say DuBois struggled at times to clarify exactly how the Obama programs will work “on the ground.”

Why it matters

Finding the proper balance in the relationship between church and state is one of the most difficult legal, political and cultural challenges in American society — and in many respects, the faith-based initiative is emblematic of that struggle. Moreover, in an economic crisis like the one the nation faces today, houses of worship and other religious institutions are considered critical to the social welfare of a growing number of people.

Quick links

The state of the debate


  • “Serving People in Need, Safeguarding Religious Freedom: Recommendations for the New Administration on Partnerships with Faith-Based Organizations”

    Read a December 2008 Brookings Institution report on faith-based programs. The report was prepared by E.J. Dionne Jr., senior fellow in governance studies at Brookings, and Melissa Rogers, director of Wake Forest University Divinity School’s Center for Religion and Public Affairs.

  • “Study shows faith-based initiatives don’t boost church’s social service”

    Read arguments from Mark Chaves, a professor of sociology, religion and divinity at Duke University and lead researcher on the National Congregations Study, in which he cites evidence that Bush’s faith-based program “did not broadly change congregations’ behavior in terms of social service activity or their role in the social welfare system.” The comments are in a Feb. 5, 2009, Duke Divinity School news release posted on the religion blog of The Dallas Morning News.

  • The Roundtable on Religion & Social Welfare Policy

    The Roundtable on Religion & Social Welfare Policy was funded by a Pew grant and ran from January 2002 through December 2008 under the aegis of the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government at the State University of New York. The Roundtable describes itself as “the preeminent source of expert, unbiased information on policy and legal developments concerning the involvement of faith-based organizations in social services.” Its Web site still maintains an archive of research, analysis and other resources. Heather Trella is the the media contact for the Rockefeller Institute of Government at the State University of New York.

  • National Paralegal College: Freedom of Religion and the Establishment Clause

    The National Paralegal College’s website has a page about the Establishment Clause of the Constitution; it includes several examples of situations in which Establishment Clause debates might arise.


  • “Faith-Based Programs Still Popular, Less Visible”

    A November 2009 survey from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life shows Americans broadly support faith-based programs, and Democrats more so than Republicans, for the first time. Yet a strong majority also has concerns about possible church-state violations.

  • “Public Favors Bush’s Faith-Based Charities Initiative”

    A July 2001 Gallup Poll analysis discussed several polls on the topic and showed the variance in public approval, which appeared to shift depending on whether respondents associated the initiative with Bush, and what charities they believed would benefit.

News stories

National sources

  • David Aikman

    David Aikman is an award-winning print and broadcast journalist and the founder of Gegrapha, an organization of predominantly evangelical Christian journalists based in Washington, D.C. He has written a number of books, including Billy Graham: His Life and Influence;  A Man of Faith: The Spiritual Journey of George W. Bush; and One Nation Without God: The Battle for Christianity in an Age of Unbelief.

  • Nancy Ammerman

    Nancy Ammerman is professor of sociology at Boston University and a leading expert on congregational dynamics, especially in mainline Protestantism. She is the author of Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes: Finding Religion in Everyday Life and Pillars of Faith: American Congregations and Their Partners. She is also an expert on religious movements and has written about the rise of fundamentalism.

  • Stanley Carlson-Thies

    Stanley Carlson-Thies is founder and senior director of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, which has called for a “Fairness for All” approach to religious freedom and LGBTQ rights. He previously worked on faith-based initiatives for the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations.

  • Mark A. Chaves

    Mark A. Chaves is professor of sociology at Duke University in Durham, N.C. He is an expert on religious organizations in the United States and leads the National Congregations Study.

  • Ram A. Cnaan

    Ram A. Cnaan is a leading expert on faith-based social services and the chair of the doctoral program in social welfare at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He wrote the article “Defining Who Is a Volunteer: Conceptual and Empirical Considerations” for the journal Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly (1996). He is also director of the Program for Religion and Social Policy Research and co-author of The Invisible Caring Hand: American Congregations and the Provision of Welfare.

  • John DiIulio Jr.

    John DiIulio Jr. is a professor of politics, religion and civil society at the University of Pennsylvania and was the first director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. A frequent speaker and writer on faith-based social services, he is co-editor of What’s God Got to Do With the American Experiment? (Brookings, 2000).

    Contact: 215-898-7641.
  • C. Welton Gaddy

    The Rev. C. Welton Gaddy is president of the Interfaith Alliance and author of numerous books, including First Freedom First: A Citizen’s Guide to Protecting Religious Liberty and the Separation of Church and State. Gaddy serves as pastor for preaching and worship at Northminster Baptist Church in Monroe, La. The alliance is based in Washington, D.C.

    He was critical of Bush’s faith-based initiative but has said he is “cautiously optimistic” about the Obama approach.

    Contact: 202-238-3300, 202) 466-0567.
  • Diana Garland

    Diana Garland, dean of the Baylor University School of Social Work, has conducted research about congregational social work and family ministry.

  • Stephen Goldsmith

    Stephen Goldsmith is Daniel Paul Professor of Government and director of the Innovations in American Government program at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. He was a special adviser to President George W. Bush on faith-based initiatives. A former mayor of Indianapolis, Goldsmith is the author of Putting Faith in Neighborhoods: Making Cities Work Through Grassroots Citizenship.

  • Joseph Loconte

    Joseph Loconte is an associate professor of history at The King’s College in New York City. He is the author of a 2001 book about the Bush initiative, God, Government and the Good Samaritan: The Promise and the Peril of the President’s Faith-Based Agenda.

  • Ira C. Lupu

    Ira “Chip” Lupu is F. Elwood and Eleanor Davis Professor of Law at the George Washington University Law School and a church-state expert who writes frequently about the faith-based initiative. In a January 2009 Q-and-A with the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, Lupu said that the trend has been toward greater church-state partnerships.

  • Barry Lynn

    Barry Lynn is executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, a lobbying group based in Washington, D.C.

  • Jay Sekulow

    Jay Sekulow is chief counsel at the American Center for Law and Justice in Washington, D.C., a leading pro-life religious legal advocacy group that frequently litigates on behalf of religious groups.

  • Robert Tuttle

    Robert Tuttle is a research professor of law and religion at George Washington University. He co-authored, along with Ira C. Lupu, Secular Government, Religious People.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Jo Renee Formicola

    Jo Renee Formicola is a professor of political science at Seton Hall University in New Jersey and author of Pope John Paul: Prophetic Politician (Georgetown University Press, 2002). She can discuss the impact of John Paul’s papacy on world affairs. She is co-author, with Mary C. Segers and Paul Weber, of Faith Based Initiatives and the Bush Administration: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

  • Peter Dobkin Hall

    Peter Dobkin Hall is a lecturer in public policy and a senior research fellow at the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations in the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He does research on social welfare policy and civic engagement and has held a teaching appointment in the Divinity School.

  • Tracey Meares

    Tracey Meares is a professor at Yale Law School in New Haven, Conn. She has given several presentations on the relationship between black churches and communities and organized a conference on “Faith-Based Initiatives and Urban Public Policy.”

  • Mary Segers

    Mary Segers is professor of political science at Rutgers University, Newark campus. Her specialties include religion and politics. She co-wrote the book Faith-Based Initiatives and the Bush Administration: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003).

  • Steven H. Shiffrin

    The Charles Frank Reavis Sr. Professor of Law at Cornell Law School in Ithaca, N.Y. Shiffrin has written that liberals need to give faith-based groups more leeway to receive federal funds.

  • Robert Wuthnow

    Robert Wuthnow is director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University. He wrote the book Poor Richard’s Principle: Recovering the American Dream Through the Moral Dimension of Work, Business and Money and was the editor of the 2006 Encyclopedia of Politics and Religion. He is also the author of  After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion and Red State Religion: Faith and Politics in America’s Heartland. He can speak about hot-button issues including abortion, the separation of church and state and gun control.

    He is also the author of Saving America?: Faith-Based Services and the Future of Civil Society.

In the South

  • Helen Rose Ebaugh

    Helen Rose Ebaugh is a professor of sociology at the University of Houston who specializes in the sociology of religion as well as religion and new immigrants.

    She has written about and researched faith-based initiatives.

  • Kathleen Flake

    Kathleen Flake is Richard Lyman Bushman Professor of Mormon Studies at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. She has written extensively on Mormons and is the author of The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle.

  • Robert V. Kemper

    Robert V. Kemper, an anthropology professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, co-authored The World As It Should Be: Faith-Based Community Development in Americaon his website.

  • Charles Marsh

    Charles Marsh is a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia and director of the university’s Project on Lived Theology, which aims “to understand the way theological commitments shape the social patterns and practices of everyday life.”

  • Melissa Rogers

    Melissa Rogers is a nonresident senior fellow in governance studies for Brookings, where she specializes in the First Amendment’s religion clauses and religion and faith-related political issues. She previously served as special assistant to President Barack Obama and executive director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

In the Midwest

In the West

  • Alan E. Brownstein

    Alan E. Brownstein is a professor of constitutional law at the University of California, Davis. He is a nationally known expert on religious freedom issues and has written widely about religious land use issues and states’ rights.

  • Greg W. Hamilton

    Greg W. Hamilton, president of the Vancouver, Wash.-based Northwest Religious Liberty Association, supports the idea of faith-based initiatives with an important qualification: He does not support government-funded faith-based groups discriminating in their hiring practices or offering sectarian programming. Hamilton is an ordained minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and a scholar of church-state issues.

    Contact: 360-857-7040.

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