In the wake of Sen. Obama's proposals on faith-based initiatives, I listened to political pundits characterize this as simply another shift by Obama toward the political "center." All this knee-jerk analysis totally misses the point.
I've followed the development of this idea for years. In September 2000 I was at a breakfast for religious leaders at the White House when President Clinton said that regardless of who was elected that fall (Bush vs. Gore), faith-based initiatives would be one of the new challenges to be worked on by any president. And the best speech on the subject was given by Al Gore during that campaign. So this never was seen as a "Republican" idea until Bush was elected, and then many more Democrats began to distance themselves from the initiative.
President Bush first appointed John Dilulio to head the Office of Faith-based Initiatives. After he left, Jim Towey was selected by the president to lead this effort. I know Jim fairly well; he worked for Mark Hatfield in the U.S. Senate after I did, and he's an outstanding public servant who worked hard to guide and fashion this program. Faith-based offices were established in several states as well, including in my own state of Michigan by Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm. But the idea eventually fell victim to the highly partisan and politicized dynamics dominating Washington.
It will take creative partnerships between private, religious-based efforts, and public governmental programs (and not an either/or) to have a substantial impact on domestic poverty. That's what the whole discussion around "faith-based initiatives" has been about in ways originally seen as nonpartisan. If that spirit can be recovered, I think I lot of church leaders and religious activists -- despite their partisan preferences -- will be encouraged. The pundits have it wrong. This isn't a right-wing or a left-wing idea; it isn't a Republican or a Democratic idea. It's simply a good idea.
Rev. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson served as legislative assistant to Sen. Mark O. Hatfield (R-OR) from 1968 to 1976. Today he serves as general secretary of the Reformed Church in America.