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Pluralism and the Office of Faith Based Initiatives

April 16, 2013

Faith in a Box

What does pluralism look like when it is allowed in the public square? What happens when faith is acknowledged and pluralism is practiced?

If pluralism is ever going to be considered, it’s not the existence or absence of the right policies that will determine success, but whether people’s hearts and minds are open to the pluralist vision.

But first, what is pluralism? Here is how the Center for Public Justice, a theologically-informed policy think-tank in DC, describes pluralism:

Principled pluralism means that government is obligated to do justice to society’s nongovernmental organizations and institutions as a matter of principle. It means that government should give equal treatment to different communities of faith.

Pluralism provides space for members of society to have principled convictions that are at odds with one another. It gives autonomy and independence to people who organize around those convictions.

The first step in opening the door to pluralism is to recognize the absence of a neutral position. It’s common for people to speak about religious faith as something that we either choose to believe in or not. But everyone has faith in their deeply held convictions.

Roy Clouser made the claim that religious faith is unavoidable in all theories, including secular ones. Any claim to “religious neutrality” is a myth:

“[T]he great historic traditions of religious teaching, and the institutions devoted to their preservation, are merely the surface effects of religious belief which is a vaster and more pervasive force than all of them put together.”

Pluralism moves away from the contemporary notion that religious faith is a private matter which, if it comes anywhere near the public square, is a nuisance at best and most likely dangerous.

This is a more contentious notion that one might think. Consider this CNN opinion piece, written by conservative Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Albert Mohler, Are Evangelicals Dangerous?

After a certain round of debates during the Republican Primaries for the 2012 election cycle, the media raised unfounded accusations of theocracy and dominionism at idea that some policy convictions were the result of faith-based convictions.

It’s difficult for a person my age, who was still in grade school during the first Bush presidency, to imagine a time in America when religious faith was given any degree of respect or acknowledgement in the public realm. My peers and I have always been naked in the public square. Religion has been cast as an inconvenient bother, not a “pervasive force.” Has it always been this way?

Though it was eclipsed by the drama surrounding about September 11th and the ensuing rush into war, there was a time when President George W. Bush had a domestic policy plan that cast a pluralistic vision for faith-based organizations. What’s more, it was a significant part of his platform. This plan acknowledged the role of faith in the public square, and attempted to change the public attitude to respect religious belief, and combing some of the coinciding energies of faith-based organizations and public institutions.

The plan started to look like it might become a reality when Bush’s first two executive orders as President established the White House Office of Faith-Based Initiatives and 11 other local federal OFBI agencies.

Unfortunately, the seeds of pluralism he planted never blossomed. Though it enjoyed great initial success in building strategies for cooperation among private and public sectors, the office failed to accept some explicitly faith-based initiatives. As the recently deceased former leader of the Office of Faith Based Initiatives David Kuo argued in his book, the President failed to fulfill some of the most basic promises he made with regard to the office.

The OFBI’s fate under the new presidency has been in question.

Joshua Good, who co-authored a paper designed to assist with the transition of the office from the former to the current President, points out the different role the Office now plays. Now-former Office director Joshua DuBois (he resigned in February 2013) used his position to host publicly funded events that pushed liberal social policies. It became a platform for nonprofits and churches to implement the Affordable Health Care Act, to help people attain SNAP benefits, veterans benefits, or participate in the First Lady’s “Let’s Move” campaign.

I saw an example of this at a meeting for the midwest’s Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, where one official laid out his efforts to get more families and individuals to take advantage of SNAP and summer student lunch programs.

The original purpose of Office that George Bush created was to break down barriers for faith-based organizations and empower them to continue doing what they were already doing as social-service providers. Instead of the Office being an enabler and supporter of faith-based organizations, it has, in the last few years, been used to support and expand federal welfare policies.

As Stanley Carlson-Theis noted in his article Faith Based Initiatives 2.0 in the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy in 2009, the Bush OFBI was designed to begin a “new attitude” of government agencies toward faith-based organizations: an attitude of “supporter, enabler, catalyst, and collaborator.”

Bush’s measures were meant to start a shift that would eventually allow religion to be a more lively part of public life. Counselors, mentors, coaches, social workers and people in other helping professions would be allowed to include religion or spirituality as part of their professional interactions, and religious organizations would be allowed to strategically coordinate and cooperate with public institutions with similar goals (Stanley 943).

In short, the vision was of a pluralist nation, rather than a nation living under the footstool of secularism.

Will that change now with  Melissa Rogers as the newly-elected leader of the Office? Coming from Wake Forest Divinity School’s center for Religion and Public life, she has served on an advisory board for the Office of Faith Based Initiatives, executive director of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, and a board member of the Public Religion Research Institute.

In a 2010 essay for the Washington Post’s On Faith blog, she wrote that the Obama administration got a “mixed verdict” in it’s handling of the Office’s policies. She also advocated, in the essay, a mechanism for religious institutions to be treated “specially” by the government as autonomous institutions, suggesting that they should be allowed to form corporations that allow them to receive federal funds, while being insulated from certain law suites. In short, she advocates a greater separation between church and state.

Despite all this, the lesson from the history of the Office of Faith Based initiatives is that having a policy platform in place to encourage pluralism is not enough. There must be encouragement from a robust nation of people committed to seeing their faith acknowledged honestly in the public square.

What is the best way to do that? How can we show that neutrality is a myth, and religion is everywhere — even secularism?

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