White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives: The First Year

July 7, 2008 - 8:03 PM

Capitol Hill (CNSNews.com) - President George W. Bush signed an executive order creating the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (OFBCI) on January 29, 2001. A report on the first anniversary of the agency says it has some accomplishments to be proud of, but much more work to be done.

"America is rich materially, but there remains too much poverty and despair amidst abundance," Bush said, announcing the creation of the OFBCI. "In this blueprint, I outline my agenda to enlist, equip, enable, empower and expand the heroic works of faith-based and community groups across America."

One year later, Dr. Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and guest scholar at the Brookings Institution is asking "Can an Office Change a Country?" in a report commissioned by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

"The motives for establishing a specialized White House office are many - an attempt to gain national recognition for a pet issue, the pursuit of support from an important constituency, or an effort to create a legacy," Tenpas wrote.

"In this case, it was primarily the result of a campaign promise coupled with a president deeply devoted to the concept of faith-based initiatives," she said.

Jim Towey, who took over the office in early 2002, says Bush's devotion to the concept has not wavered.

"What's fundamental, I think to President Bush's vision for the faith-based initiative and for this office," Towey said, "is his belief that there must be hope for those who are in need of care, for our abandoned, and our abused, for people who are addicted."

He says those people very often have found few choices and options in their own communities for such help, and that the OFBCI is working to "level the playing field" so that faith-based organizations can provide such alternatives.

"There are real-world barriers to the participation of faith-based organizations in programs that the federal government funds," Towey said, citing an audit his office completed of five cabinet agencies (Justice, Education, Labor, Health and Human Services, and Housing and Urban Development).

"The federal government has a sincere and important interest in seeing that the needs of citizens who are hurting are addressed," he said. "Why not look at organizations who have proven track records, who have a special capability of providing the services."

That audit found that most of the federal agencies queried not only do not reach out to faith-based providers of services they need, but they also have rules and regulations that actively discourage participation.

James Davids heads the Justice Department's faith-based and community initiatives center, one of five such offices created in cabinet departments by the order formalizing the OFBCI. His audit determined that DOJ's grant administration office was almost completely ignoring faith-based programs.

"Of the amount that was distributed by the Office of Justice Programs, $2.6 billion," Davids said, "faith-based organizations received only 0.25 percent of the money. Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is not level."

Tenpas says it is at the agency level, rather than in Congress, where the OFBCI is likely to have its greatest future successes.

"In the long run," she said, "the most profound impact will lie in the re-writing of hundreds of regulations that will shift the flow of federal funds to religious groups."

But not everyone is excited about that prospect.

"One of the questions we have to think about is whether or not it still is a good thing for religious organizations to be this intimately tied to government," said Professor Gregg Ivers, chairman of the Department of Government at The American University.

"When people begin to take money from the government, there is no escaping the fact that the relationship is going to change," Ivers argued. "As soon as you sign on the bottom line to comply with the conditions of that grant, lots of things may get compromised along the way."

Towey says one of his goals leading the OFBCI is to help the public understand that the federal government is not seeking to fund or change religious organizations.

"The whole focus of the funding question is not on the religious organization but on the people they serve," he said. "The initiative's focus is not on who the recipient [of the grant] is, but on the quality of services that can be rendered ... the debate is trying to return to the question of who can do it best."

Tenpas suggests that the OFBCI will need the support of the full White House in order to translate that goal into concrete action. The best way to gain that support, she says, is to place the office under the auspices of the Domestic Policy Council, where it can receive backing from the legislative affairs, communications, and political affairs departments.

"Though the goals of the OFBCI will change, the president and his staff would be wise to heed the lessons of the first year," she said, "taking into account the perils of policy making and promotion as they carve out a new role in its second year of life."

Towey says he's looking forward to the challenge with the president's "unflinching support."

"Our office is not big, it does not have a lot of staff, [and] it does not have a large budget. What it does have, though, is an urgent task and an important task, which of its own will, I believe, drive it to success in the coming year," he said.

"It also has a special place in the president's heart. He believes in this compassionate agenda of his, and in seeing that faith-based and other community organizations are enlisted in the urgent task of addressing the needs of our poor," Towey concluded.

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