Krista's Journal: Re-envisioning the Meaning of "Faith-Based" in the White House

May 28, 2009

I've been intrigued ever since I first heard about Joshua DuBois when he was the even younger director of religious affairs for Barack Obama's presidential campaign. As we discussed last fall with Time magazine's Amy Sullivan, Bishop Vashti McKenzie, and others, that campaign brought faith out of the closet in a sense for the contemporary Democratic Party — while reaching out actively to a broad spectrum of religious and spiritual identities. And it was right, and fun, to interview this political insider in person. Joshua DuBois seems at once very much his age and older than his years. He exhibits a certain political caution. Yet he retains a natural warmth and humor — and a lingering sense of awe at what he has experienced in being part of the winning, history-making rise of Barack Obama and all that he stands for. In some sense it is too early to question Joshua DuBois about what "faith-based" will mean in this new administration. The office he leads as part of the Domestic Policy Council was announced in February and is still being assembled as we speak. (They have e-mail but no stationary, and the Web site, DuBois says, is about two weeks away.) Still, the story he already has to tell is full of basic information I have simply not seen laid out elsewhere. We learn, for example, that the faith-based office in Barack Obama's White House will not itself distribute funds to religiously-based or secular non-profits. Neither, apparently, did the faith-based office of George W. Bush, though that office took a proactive approach to removing obstacles to faith-based groups receiving funding from federal agencies. It's interesting, too, that the Obama administration — here in a departure from the Bush administration — has identified issue areas under the "faith-based and neighborhood partnership" umbrella — with the difficult subject of "abortion reduction" among them. As DuBois tells it, echoing President Obama's recent commencement speech at the University of Notre Dame, a critical part of his challenge in this area is to foster new kinds of conversation and encounter across dividing lines on this issue. And it is fascinating to hear him talk about how such conversations were already part of his experience during the presidential campaign. He describes encounters with diverse gatherings across the country which persuaded him that new dialogue on painful issues — especially abortion — is possible. Joshua DuBois faces controversy ahead, too, as he is well aware. The constitutionality of federal funding to non-profits that discriminate in hiring raises concerns. So does the potential for religious proselytizing funded by federal dollars. The Obama administration has pledged to consider such constitutional concerns on a case by case basis, a process that has not yet begun. Less controversial, perhaps, but with vast room for interpretation and development, is Joshua DuBois' mission to be an office "for all Americans," as he likes to say, religious and non-religious. In this office, it seems, President Obama plans to build on the insistence in his inaugural address that the U.S. is a nation of "Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers." In a small group "salon" conversation we held the morning after the DuBois event, there was a palpable sense of both the tension and promise in this charge — a tension and promise that reflect the changing face of religious and spiritual life in contemporary U.S. culture and in public life. I Recommend Listening or Viewing: Thirteen members of the first SOF Salon assemble at the UBS Forum at Minnesota Public Radio in Saint Paul, Minnesota.SoundSeen: SOF Salon: "Lived Faith and Civic Life" This short audio collage (mp3, 2:21) brings together pieces of the conversation that followed my live interview with Joshua DuBois. A diverse group of 13 individuals showed up to react to DuBois' words, and contribute their own stories to the dialogue. You can also download audio of the full conversation (mp3, 1:09:45), or watch a recording of the live video feed.

Video of Religious Life in the Obama Era.SoundSeen: Live at the Fitz! [video, 79:27] Several times per year, I'm able to conduct a face-to-face interview with a leading figure in front of a live, public audience. When we're able, we like to film these events so we can include those of you who couldn't attend. Here you can watch the final production of my conversation with Joshua DuBois on the stage of the Fitzgerald Theater.

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Joshua DuBois

is the executive director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.