In 2000 I was part of a small group of religious leaders invited to Austin, Texas, to discuss a new White House faith-based initiative with George W. Bush before he came to Washington, D.C., as president. I was an early supporter of the initiative because I believed that partnerships between the faith community and government in alleviating poverty were both necessary and appropriate within the framework of the Constitution. For two years I was in regular conversation with the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, under the leadership of John DiIulio and, later, Jim Towey, and Sojourners and Call to Renewal collaborated with the new office on a number of dialogues and initiatives. But my relationship with the White House ended after my public criticism of President Bush's path to war in Iraq. Yet I continued to support the idea and promise of the faith-based initiative.
But I was disappointed with the corresponding lack of policy commitment to reduce poverty by the Bush administration, and the eventual politicizing of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives along partisan lines. Instead of a partnership, this initiative became a substitute for necessary public policies attacking the causes and consequences of poverty within the United States. Despite this failure, my commitment to public-private partnership involving the faith community has never diminished.
I have hoped that both presidential candidates would re-commit the nation to this necessary and positive vision of partnership between the public sector and the faith community on the goals of poverty reduction. Today, Barack Obama outlined his plan to engage faith-based and community organizations from the White House in order to create "the foundation of a new project of American renewal." Obama affirmed the idea of a faith-based initiative on the solid foundations of both real partnership and the necessary commitment of government to sound public policy to reduce poverty. Prior to today, the danger was that Democrats might revert to old secular biases and end the faith-based program altogether, preferring only public sector approaches as the remedy to poverty instead of also forging vital partnerships with civil society that include the faith community. It was good to see that the failures of the Bush faith-based initiative have not deterred Obama from proposing a robust vision of his own.
The key to today's proposal is that it is based on public and faith-based partnership, and will not become another replacement for sound public policy. To truly be successful, this initiative must utilize the unique resources and identity of the faith community, while at the same time recognizing the indispensible role that government and public policy must play in tackling the root causes of poverty. Obama's proposals also contain necessary protections for religious liberty, pluralism, and constitutional safeguards.
This initiative has the potential to unite people across partisan lines. I truly hope that a recommitment to engaging the valuable role of faith-based organizations doesn't get mired in the endless political debates of the past while God's concerns for the weak and vulnerable get ignored.