Obama's Faith-Based Office
Joshua Dubois was the executive director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: I’m Krista Tippett. Today, a public conversation with Joshua DuBois, the 26-year-old political strategist and Pentecostal minister who is heading the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in the Obama White House. We’ll explore what is being retained from the Bush years, what will change, and how the experience of the Obama campaign shaped Joshua DuBois’ vision of what is possible.
MR. JOSHUA DUBOIS: We were all told that, you know, our differences are so broad and wide and there’s no bridge that can span them, but I’ve been in little churches in Montana and temples in New York and everywhere in between, and there’s so many things that people actually agree on. And so that was just startling. I wasn’t expecting that. I was expecting, quite frankly, more push back. More heat. And there was a tremendous amount of light instead.
MS. TIPPETT: is Speaking of Faith. Stay with us.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. The very words “faith-based” became controversial during the Bush administration, but Barack Obama has retained the faith-based centers and 11 federal agencies that his predecessor created. And within weeks of assuming the presidency, he announced priority areas for his own White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, including economic recovery and poverty reduction, abortion reduction, responsible fatherhood, and global interfaith dialogue.
This hour, we meet the 26-year-old who will lead this charge. Joshua DuBois is a trusted associate of the president, a political strategist, and Pentecostal minister who wants to make his office a resource across religious and secular boundaries.
From American Public Media, this is Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas.
Today, “Obama’s Faith-Based Office — Meeting Joshua DuBois.” I’ve been intrigued ever since I started hearing about Joshua DuBois when he was the Religious Affairs Director for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. Among its distinguishing features, that campaign brought religion out of the closet, in a sense, in the contemporary Democratic Party, while reaching out actively to people across the spectrum of religious and spiritual identity. Joshua DuBois helped envision and implement that outreach and played a number of other roles from advising on religiously oriented themes and speeches to leading prayers for campaign aides and preparing devotions for then-candidate Obama.
Now, within the Domestic Policy Council of the White House, Joshua DuBois will run his own staff and work closely with the faith-based centers across federal agencies. He’s aided by a national advisory board appointed by the president of 25 religious leaders and heads of religious and secular nonprofits.
Joshua DuBois grew up primarily in Nashville, where his grandmother had participated in the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Spiritually, he grew up in the African Methodist Episcopal church of his stepfather. He studied political science at Boston University, earned a master’s degree in public affairs from Princeton, and then headed to Capitol Hill.
I interviewed Joshua DuBois in a live public event on May 20th at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota. A global audience engaged with our conversation online via live video stream and Twitter.
MR. DUBOIS: Well, hello. Hello, St. Paul.
MS. TIPPETT: And the world.
MR. DUBOIS: And the world. And all of Twitter.
MS. TIPPETT: And all of Twitter. You know, I start all the conversations I have if I’m talking with a quantum physicist or theologian, I’d like for you to tell us something about the religious and spiritual background of your life, of your childhood.
MR. DUBOIS: OK. Well, I’m a preacher’s kid. Any preachers’ kids in the house, PKs? OK. There we go. And my dad, Reverend W. Antoni Sinkfield, is a wonderful pastor in Nashville, Tennessee, and my mom is also very committed to her faith. And like some preachers’ kids, I think being so close to religion in fact in some ways pushed me away from faith. Perhaps it’s because I thought I knew everything because I was so exposed to it on a regular basis. So I actually didn’t come to my own set of beliefs — I’m a committed Christian now — until I got to college and found a wonderful church, Calvary Praise and Worship Center, and a great pastor and good friends there, and became active in ministry there. So that’s the short version of my story.
MS. TIPPETT: So at Boston University, where you were studying political science. From what I’ve read, you had kind of a — you found your religious life at the same time that you found your political voice in a new way.
MR. DUBOIS: Well, it was an awakening of sorts. I, like many freshman in college, didn’t care too much about too many things except, you know, where I was going to be on Friday night and who may or may not be — you know. Never mind.
But there was this moment early in my college career where I became interested in the case of a young African immigrant named Amadou Diallo. And this was a young man who, because of an accident and unfortunate timing, was shot by police officers 41 times. At the time when the verdict came down and the officers were acquitted, there’s something that was sort of awoken in me. I felt just the monumental sense of a failure of public policy and the protection that our government wasn’t able to provide to this young man, but also a real moral failure as well. You know, to this day I have a hard time explaining exactly what it was, but it shook in me a sense that I needed to connect to something larger to understand all of the nuances in the world, both in terms of politics and also in terms of religion. So that’s when I found my church and my faith and also started my political path as well.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. And this church, the Calvary Praise and Worship Center, is a Pentecostal church; is that right?
MR. DUBOIS: It is. Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, something I think a lot of people in this country don’t know who aren’t Pentecostal is in its origins, and certainly globally, Pentecostalism has deep social justice sensibility.
MR. DUBOIS: True.
MS. TIPPETT: And I just wonder, was that true also of this particular congregation?
MR. DUBOIS: Sure. I mean, we are a small church, so we’re limited in some of our abilities to be active in the broader community. But to the extent that we can, my pastor can, he certainly is integrated in the world around him and the church in Cambridge. So, yeah, I would say so.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. Now, some accounts of you say that you are ordained. I know that you’ve been a preacher.
MR. DUBOIS: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: And you are an associate pastor. Is that …
MR. DUBOIS: Yes. I’ve reached the first level or ordination in my church. Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: OK. So let’s hear about your first experience of, or even when you first became aware of this …
MR. DUBOIS: This guy named Barack Obama? Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: … this guy named Barack Obama.
MR. DUBOIS: Well, it was actually a fascinating time. I was wrapping up grad school and trying to figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I was both very interested in my faith and my religious journey and serving in that manner and also in public policy, and I was trying to figure out a way to combine the two. I was doing a fellowship in D.C. on Capitol Hill and struggling with where I was going to go in life. I was at a restaurant and I looked up at the television and it was the Democratic National Convention and there was this skinny guy with an odd name and I’d never heard of him before. He was talking and it was a compelling story, a compelling background, and he was hitting all the issues that I really cared about. Then he started talking about the awesome god that we serve in the blue states. I was like, “Who is this guy?”
MS. TIPPETT: He said we worship an awesome god in the blue states.
MR. DUBOIS: Exactly. And so, long story short, I grew to learn more about him. Read his book and sort of beat down the door to his Senate office.
MS. TIPPETT: You really did beat down the door, didn’t you
MR. DUBOIS: I did beat down the door.
MS. TIPPETT: What did you do? You first got a rejection letter.
MR. DUBOIS: Well, I tried to join up with the campaign and at that time they had many, many volunteers, more than they could handle. And when he was elected, I drove down from New Jersey a grand total of three times to Washington, leaving my resume there and eventually …
MS. TIPPETT: When he was elected to the Senate. Right.
MR. DUBOIS: Yeah. And then eventually got a call back.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MR. DUBOIS: And it’s been a great experience ever since.
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MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media, today in a public conversation with Joshua DuBois, head of the new Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in the Obama White House.
Did you work with Barack Obama, Senator Obama, on the “Call to Renewal” speech that he gave in 2006?
MR. DUBOIS: Definitely. He was actually the only Democratic senator with a point person for faith-based public policy and that was my role at the time.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. DUBOIS: That was a wonderful moment and a wonderful speech that he gave. Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, again, I think this speech is well known in some circles …
MR. DUBOIS: But not enough. Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: … in some religious circles. But I think it’s really a watershed speech. I do kind of suspect that it will be discovered. So I’m just going to read a little bit from this.
MR. DUBOIS: Sure.
MS. TIPPETT: He said, in 2006: “If we truly hope to speak to people where they’re at, to communicate our hopes and values in a way that’s relevant to their own, then as progressives we cannot abandon the field of religious discourse. Because when we ignore the debate about what it means to be a good Christian or Muslim or Jew, when we discuss religion only in the negative sense of where or how it should not be practiced, rather than in the positive sense of what it tells about our obligations to each other, others will fill the vacuum: those with the most insular voices of faith or those who cynically use religion to justify partisan ends.”
I mean, that’s taking his statement that really did electrify people at the convention — “We worship an awesome god in the blue states” …
MR. DUBOIS: Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: … to another level. And pointing to a new direction for talking about faith and working with faith in the progressive movement in the Democratic Party.
MR. DUBOIS: And it’s all about conversation. It’s all about, you know, breaking down the walls of them versus us and realizing that across these different religious lines we can find points of commonality. We can still bring our own individual beliefs to the table and we can be clear in those, but at the same time we can still find things that we can agree with.
MS. TIPPETT: Did you realize and did he realize, did other people around you realize that you really were charting a new course? And was that intentional?
MR. DUBOIS: You know, I don’t think his purpose was ever really to chart a new course. It was just to sort of be true to who he was — a committed Christian but who understood the pluralism in our society and the fact that Democrats have to do a better job of engaging Americans on not just public policy but on their values. So I think it was more about what he knew to be true than any desire to sort of shift the broader conversation in the party, but we’re glad that that appears to have happened as well.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. So then you became the director of religious affairs, religious outreach.
MR. DUBOIS: Mm-hmm.
MS. TIPPETT: I don’t know what the exact title was, for the presidential campaign.
MR. DUBOIS: Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: And you had a staff of six and lots — hundreds of volunteers, I think, that you were helping oversee. What was your …
MR. DUBOIS: What does that mean?
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MR. DUBOIS: What did we do?
MS. TIPPETT: And what was your message? What was your charge and what obstacles did you encounter?
MR. DUBOIS: You know, it was a fascinating time and really a monumental learning experience for me. Our message was that undergirding, underlying the policies that we all care about and that we talk about as a party and as a country are values, and many of these values are shared. And we wanted to know what values folks were bringing to the table all across the country. And then we wanted to express then-Senator Obama’s values and find points of commonality, points that, quite frankly, may prompt people to vote for him, to support him.
So we did these conversations, these community faith forums all across the country, where we would invite individuals into a room across religious lines. They were fascinating arrays and tapestries of folks who attended these things. We had some in Manchester, New Hampshire, that were largely secular humanist but some Evangelicals and a few mainline Protestants. Obviously, in South Carolina the mix was a little different. And then we did them in Iowa and other states as well. And we would come in and we would talk about what our common values are, and it was striking, the difference between the religious debates that you see on television and on cable news and the religious conversations that we had all across the country. You would think that we all couldn’t stand each other if all you did was watch news shows about religion.
When we were out in the field, everyone, whether you’re an Evangelical Protestant or a Hindu, realized that we had a broken health care system. And they knew people who were suffering as a result, and they also tied that to their values, to their faith. So those were the conversations we had.
MS. TIPPETT: What did you learn about religion and politics that you hadn’t known before and that surprised you in that experience?
MR. DUBOIS: I think that notion of common ground. I don’t want to stay here or dwell here but it was the most striking thing. Because we’re all told, you know, that our differences are so broad and wide and there’s no bridge that can span them. But I’ve been in little churches in Montana and temples in New York and everywhere in between, and there’s so many things that people actually agree on. And so that was just startling. I wasn’t expecting that. I was expecting, quite frankly, more push back. More heat. And there was a tremendous amount of light instead.
MS. TIPPETT: So I think, and even in these last years, using those two words in the same sentence, “religion” and “politics.”
MR. DUBOIS: Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: I mean, did you not …
MR. DUBOIS: That you’re not supposed to talk about those things in polite company?
MS. TIPPETT: No. Well, I say that we talk about sex and money in politics, so we get to talk about religion too.
MR. DUBOIS: Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: Did you not — did you sometimes get into a situation where the people fell into the predictable positions and had to be nudged out?
MR. DUBOIS: Every now and then. I think at the beginning of the conversation, because folks think that’s where they’re supposed to be. You’re coming in to battle. But then when you start talking about the president and Senator Obama and where he was, and we would pull out quotes from the “Call to Renewal” speech that you just highlighted.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. DUBOIS: And then we would talk about — you know, one thing that I think was really important, and this was, again, driven by the president, was instead of focusing on issues we focused on stories. So it wasn’t, you know, “Tell me what you think about health care policy,” or “Tell me what you think about war.” It was, “Who in your community or your family do you know that’s affected by a broken health care system?” or “Do you know anyone that’s fighting in Iraq? And what do you think about that? How do your values relate to that?” And so it’s easy to disagree at the level of issues, but it’s really hard to disagree with someone’s story. And so once we moved there to that part of the conversation, we saw a lot of walls broken down.
MS. TIPPETT: And is it right that you were also a force in getting candidate Obama to go to the Saddleback Forum at Rick Warren’s church?
MR. DUBOIS: I certainly worked with him on that. Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. What did you think of that experience? I just want to ask you. You know, I’ll show my hand a little bit in that I watched it and I felt that the coverage was incomplete.
MR. DUBOIS: In what way?
MS. TIPPETT: Now, see, I’m supposed to be asking you the questions.
MR. DUBOIS: Well …
MS. TIPPETT: That’s a very good tactic for a politician. For example …
MR. DUBOIS: Yes. Three points, please.
MR. DUBOIS: I’m sorry. Go ahead.
MS. TIPPETT: There was this sound bite on abortion. It was when Rick Warren asked him, it was something like, “Does a fetus have human rights?” and that’s when Obama said, “Answering that question is above my pay grade.” And that’s the sound bite everyone heard. In fact, he gave a very nuanced answer about abortion, which in some ways he expanded on in his recent speech at Notre Dame. And I felt that that wasn’t really covered.
MR. DUBOIS: Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: And so when people declared it a loss for Obama, I just wondered if the whole story was being told. And I wondered how you saw that.
MR. DUBOIS: Well, I thought then-Senator Obama did a phenomenal job. And I was there with him at the time, and I thought it was really a nuanced conversation about the role of faith in America. But in some ways, it wasn’t meant to be sound-bited, if that’s a word. And obviously we live in a news cycle that demands winners and losers, and so I don’t think that conversation necessarily fit those demands. But at the same time, I was, again, so proud of what he was able to convey about the role of religion in American public life.
MS. TIPPETT: Even if maybe the message wasn’t heard by people.
MR. DUBOIS: Well, you know, I think the message was heard, and I think some of that nuance was picked up, even if that’s not where the press dwelled.
MS. TIPPETT: Joshua DuBois. I’m Krista Tippett in a live public conversation about the evolving direction of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships that Joshua DuBois is heading in the White House of Barack Obama.
MS. TIPPETT: Are you involved, say, in helping him, for example, write the remarks he gave at Notre Dame or formulate those kinds of ideas on this issue of abortion?
MR. DUBOIS: Sure. Well, you know, these key speeches are all the president’s voice.
MS. TIPPETT: Yes.
MR. DUBOIS: But I certainly worked very closely with the team that works with him on that. Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: And that is one of the four issues, four kind of guiding issues for — there’s a focus to …
MR. DUBOIS: To the office.
MS. TIPPETT: … the office. So, I mean, let’s jump into that.
MR. DUBOIS: Sure.
MS. TIPPETT: What does it mean that the issues of abortion reduction is one of the four guiding areas of your office?
MR. DUBOIS: Sure. Well, I think that it means, one, we talk about it in terms of four pillars: reducing unintended pregnancies and teenage pregnancies, supporting maternal and child health, reducing the need for abortion, and strengthening adoption. So just to be clear, there are four things that we’re looking at here, and we’re one partner with the White House Council on Women and Girls, who is working very closely with us in this effort. And it’s just a simple idea that the president has that, yes, this is a very contentious issue and there are clear perspectives on both sides, and this table is not meant to resolve those issues. Folks are going to continue to fight those battles, and hopefully we can do it in a way that respects differences of opinion where we can disagree without necessarily being disagreeable. But there are some points of common ground, of common purpose. We can all agree that pregnant women should be supported, that adoption and foster care should be strengthened, that we should have fewer teenage pregnancies. So we are reaching out to both pro-life Americans, pro-choice Americans, faith groups, women’s groups, and everyone in between to figure out where those policy areas are in the middle, while respecting the fact that folks aren’t going to check their deeply held beliefs at the door in order to have that conversation.
MS. TIPPETT: And it sounds like the conversation itself, at least right now, is as important as the policy areas.
MR. DUBOIS: Well, they’re both important. You know, we’re not talking just for the sake of talking and I think that …
MS. TIPPETT: No, but talking for the sake of moving forward.
MR. DUBOIS: Of moving forward.
MS. TIPPETT: Together.
MR. DUBOIS: You’re right; it’s critically important. Again, it’s just the magic of sitting down with someone across a table when the press and the broader political world tells you that you have nothing in common, and then you sit down and you figure out, hey, actually I do have a few things in common with this person from another party or from another perspective.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m just going to give a little bit of history, and just correct me or fill this in if you want …
MR. DUBOIS: Sure.
MS. TIPPETT: … just for people who are listening. And I’m no expert in this, but across American history, the Supreme Court has always allowed some aid to flow to religious entities. For example, the Great Society relied very heavily on the work of black churches — and so even in recent memory — but for a long time distinguished between degrees of sectarianism. So there would be less of a flow to organizations that were — what did they call — pervasively sectarian. Then in the late ’80s and mid-90s, this concept of charitable choice was coined, and that was partly about allowing religious groups to compete for welfare reform funding on more of a level playing field.
Now obviously this came to a different stage in the administration of George W. Bush. He signed an executive order creating the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. It was never passed as legislation. It was very controversial from the very beginning. The first director, John Dilulio, quit within a year. It became politicized, and there was much less energy around it in the second term. So, I mean, that’s a nutshell history without even going into …
MR. DUBOIS: So why are we doing this?
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. So, I mean, I wonder.
MR. DUBOIS: Sure.
MS. TIPPETT: And I wondered when Barack Obama first started talking about this during the campaign. Why?
MR. DUBOIS: Well, here’s the reason — and then I’ll talk a little bit about the office, if that’s OK.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.
MR. DUBOIS: Well, the president believes that we’ve got some real challenges as a nation and across the globe. We’ve got too many kids who aren’t getting the education they need. We have too many folks that are suffering with diseases and aren’t getting the health care they need, folks that are suffering with poverty and hunger. And he understands that if we’re going to address these things, then we can’t do it in Washington alone and that we’ve got to connect with community-based organizations, faith-based groups, all hands on deck. It’s not a concept of some groups doing things better than others, but it’s about creating partnerships to serve people in need. This is something that he’s believed for a long time. As everyone knows, he was a community organizer coming out of college, but he was working with faith groups.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. He was, right at the beginning, wasn’t he?
MR. DUBOIS: With faith-based organizations. But we’re doing things a little differently, and I think that’s important. Sort of three areas of difference, if I may.
MS. TIPPETT: OK. Yeah. Tell me also why the name changed. What is signified by the Neighborhood Partnerships?
MR. DUBOIS: It decentralized the fact that in addition to faith-based groups, we’re also working with secular neighborhood organizations, nonprofits that are serving their communities, the Boys and Girls Club, others. So kind of three ways that we’re changing course a bit. As you mentioned, the previous faith-based initiative was largely focused on leveling the playing field.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. DUBOIS: Making sure that faith-based groups had access …
MS. TIPPETT: And even removing obstacles.
MR. DUBOIS: Removing obstacles, making sure they had access to the federal government, access to federal funds and resources. And you talk to the president about this, and it’s important for groups to not be discriminated against but in addition to having a level playing field, you also have to do something on the playing field and to have some very specific goals that you’re hoping to achieve through your partnerships with faith-based groups. So we’re shifting our mission, not just to level the playing field for leveling sake but to focus on some specific goals.
We have four goals: integrating community-based organizations in the economic recovery; supporting responsible fatherhood and healthy families, something that’s really close to the president’s heart; reducing unintended pregnancies; and supporting maternal and child health and reducing the need for abortion. And then interreligious dialogue and cooperation, using both the bully pulpit of the presidency and various levers of the federal government to bring people of different religious backgrounds together.
So the big picture is that the first way we’re different is that we have a set of goals. Here are the ways that we’re going to measure ourselves. Not just based on groups that are receiving money from the federal government …
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. DUBOIS: … but how well we’re achieving these four specific purposes. The second way we’re different is a renewed focus on outreach to a range of different communities. We really want to throw the doors of the White House open to folks of different religious and nonreligious backgrounds and allow folks to understand that this is not an office just for one particular community. We also have a new advisory council that’s wonderfully diverse, a rich tapestry of individuals.
MS. TIPPETT: Does the advisory council have nonreligious members?
MR. DUBOIS: It certainly does. Big Brothers, Big Sisters, Seedco, and other organizations that are secular are represented there as well. And then the third way that we’re different is we really want to strengthen the legal and constitutional footing of this office. The president strongly believes that the federal government can come into responsible partnership with faith-based groups and with community-based groups, but the responsible partnership is key, that he’s also a Constitutional scholar. He believes in the establishment clause and that organizations should not use federal funds for sectarian purposes and that they shouldn’t proselytize using federal dollars. So we are working agency by agency to really strengthen that legal footing.
MS. TIPPETT: So, I mean, would you say that Barack Obama might have thought that the idea of the faith-based office, even when George W. Bush established it, was a good idea?
MR. DUBOIS: Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: Was the right direction but he wanted to do it differently.
MR. DUBOIS: I think that’s fair to say. Yeah.
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MS. TIPPETT: We not only streamed live video of my conversation with Joshua DuBois, we also captured this live event in HD. At onbeing.org, you can download this produced video and an MP3 of our unedited 90-minute conversation for free. While there, you can also listen again to this program as well as my past interviews with people who’ve been selected by President Obama for the national council that is advising Joshua DuBois on the direction of his work. They include Jim Wallis, a progressive social activist and author; Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Corps; and Bishop Vashti McKenzie of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Download all these conversations on our Web site and through our podcast at email@example.com.
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MS. TIPPETT: After a short break, we’ll explore some of the ins and outs and the Constitutional challenges for the Obama administration’s approach to religious organizations. Also, Joshua DuBois describes how local innovators can get involved with his office.
I’m Krista Tippett. Stay with us. Speaking of Faith comes to you from American Public Media.
MS. TIPPETT: Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “Obama’s Faith-Based Office: Meeting Joshua DuBois.” We’re gaining a sense of the background and vision of the 26-year-old trusted associate of the president who is heading the new White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. This office will build on the existing structure of the Bush administration’s outreach to faith-based organizations, but in my live public conversation with Joshua DuBois on May 20th, he also spoke about new directions in structure, mission, and diversity. His role, he says, is to be a voice for nonprofits generally within the Domestic Policy Council of the White House and across federal agencies.
When Barack Obama announced his Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in February, he also outlined areas of special concern that will guide its work and how it measures success. They include economic recovery and poverty reduction, abortion reduction, responsible fatherhood, and global interfaith dialogue.
MS. TIPPETT: So let me just ask you. I mean, I think even this term “faith-based” during the Bush years itself became politicized. So I want to ask you, I mean, when you use that term “faith-based,” what comes to mind?
MR. DUBOIS: Organizations that are rooted in a particular value system or a particular religious value system. Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: And what are they doing?
MR. DUBOIS: Well, you know, I think it depends on …
MS. TIPPETT: I’ve just heard of …
MR. DUBOIS: They’re doing …
MS. TIPPETT: What’s the picture?
MR. DUBOIS: … many, many things. I think if they are coming into a formal partnership with the federal government, meaning a financial partnership, then they must be doing something that’s secular in nature, but there are faith-based groups whose only purpose is to serve the spiritual and religious needs of the population and their membership. So they’re doing a range of things.
MS. TIPPETT: This notion of strengthening the legal and Constitutional footing of faith-based organizations, that’s tricky. Right? I mean, you …
MR. DUBOIS: Well, it’s tricky in some ways and in some ways it’s straightforward. Things like encouraging groups for form 501(c)(3)s, which really makes a lot of this make a lot more sense. And I think we can do a lot to do that, and we’re working with partners in various agencies even now to improve that process. So there are some simple things that we can do, and it really starts from the perspective of, one, it’s important and we’re going to lead with it. We’re going to talk about it. Whenever we talk about federal grants and resources, we are also going to talk about the limits of that funding. And, two, the vast majority of organizations want to stay within the lines; they just need to know what the lines are, and we have to make it a priority to communicate that. I don’t think that was necessarily done in the past.
MS. TIPPETT: There is this real hot-button issue of hiring. And there are surveys that show that two-thirds to three-quarters of the American public with majorities in both parties don’t support government partnering with faith-based groups if those groups are allowed to hire and pay with public money only people in their own tradition. And I know that, you know, this is a very sensitive issue for people on both sides of the spectrum, and it’s the first thing that comes up. I mean, when Barack Obama gave that original speech during the campaign, it’s the first fight that already starts to take place. So, I mean, talk about that. Are you in the middle of that?
MR. DUBOIS: Well, what we’re doing is the president has created a new process by which we’re going to be able to explore these issues on a case-by-case basis — any difficult legal issues, including the issue of coreligionist hire.
MS. TIPPETT: And how is that a change from the Bush administration policy?
MR. DUBOIS: Well, formally written into the executive order creating my office, it’s mandated that when any challenging legal issue arises, I have to work with the White House Council and with the attorney general to explore that issue fully and then bring a recommendation back to the president. So it increases the priority and profile of that sort of exploratory process. There were groups on both sides — there were progressive organizations that wanted a more sweeping change and conservative organizations that were worried about this new mechanism. But the president strongly believes that on this or any difficult legal issue that this office will face that we need to fully understand both the legal terrain, the policy environment, and then make an informed decision. So that’s the process that he’s created.
MS. TIPPETT: Have you considered any of those cases yet?
MR. DUBOIS: Not yet. No.
MS. TIPPETT: This is all just …
MR. DUBOIS: It’s all very new.
MS. TIPPETT: … very new, isn’t it?
MR. DUBOIS: We’re still getting our e-mail addresses and so forth.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. Really?
MR. DUBOIS: Well, I do have my e-mail address but we don’t have stationery yet.
MS. TIPPETT: And, you know, the charge during the Bush administration, or one concern, was that supporting faith-based initiatives might become one way to justify cutting government funding, for example, for anti-poverty programs. I don’t think people are making that charge in the Obama administration, although it’s a very new administration. But you have this other problem of an economic crisis, and state and local funding is already being cut as we speak. And I just wonder, are these groups turning to you and can you respond or is this part of your charge?
MR. DUBOIS: Well, one interesting thing, and this was not — it was the case in the previous administration but it maybe wasn’t made clear that the Faith-Based Office actually does not do grant funding. They don’t do any direct grant funding, either the White House office or the faith-based centers that are within several agencies. Instead, we tell organizations where the grants are and let them know what they need to do to apply for them. So I think we are hearing from more groups, both secular and religious organizations, that are experiencing tough financial times, but we’re just sort of pointing them in the right direction.
[Sound bite of music]
MS. TIPPETT: Joshua DuBois. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media, today in a public conversation with Joshua DuBois who’s directing the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in the Obama White House. As he and I spoke on the stage at the Fitzgerald Theater, audience members and online viewers submitted questions. I was joined in moderating those questions by Larry Jacobs of the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.
MR. LARRY JACOBS: Here’s a question from the audience. How do you avoid partisanship in the use of funds through the Faith-Based Office?
MR. DUBOIS: Well, there’s an easy answer to that. We don’t touch the funds, which is really important. And we make that clear that in the competitive grants that are going out across the federal government, my office does not sort of move money one way or another. We’ll make no attempt to intervene, and we’ll make it 100 percent clear that politics have nothing to do with funding decisions.
MS. TIPPETT: So the way I understand it, what you are doing is helping, say, religious organizations, community organizations, know how to get into the system.
MR. DUBOIS: That’s right.
MS. TIPPETT: Like how to write effective grants.
MR. DUBOIS: And also, we are focusing on nonfinancial partnerships, what we call civic partnerships. How can we communicate important information to a faith-based group? We just did a big conference call on pandemic flu preparedness or on disaster preparedness more broadly, or obesity or whatever. How can we extend information or resources or technical assistance in a way that is not just about grant funding? And also how can we connect groups with other resources, whether it’s state and local faith-based offices or with one another so that they can share best practices. There are many things that we can do that aren’t related to federal grant programs and state faith-based offices are a key part of that. And I see your Minnesota faith-based office head, Lee Buckley, here. And she does a wonderful job here in Minnesota.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, you said something interesting to me while the music was going on, that a story that’s not often told is that there were some great people working in the Faith-Based Office in the Bush administration, and a lot of those people have come or still are a part of your …
MR. DUBOIS: Yeah. There are some wonderful folks. He’ll probably kill me — Ben O’Dell from the HHS Faith-Based, Health and Human Service Faith-Based center. And so many civil servants who really believe in responsible partnership between the federal government and faith-based groups and have really given their — including previous leadership of the office. I think that, again, the media tends to focus on some of the challenges as opposed to some of the great work that was done.
MS. TIPPETT: So, I mean, I’m curious and maybe some of them would know this and maybe you all haven’t been working together long enough to have had this conversation, but I wonder if the office is now being approached by a whole different group of faith-based organizations than the ones who may have been best known in the last eight years.
MR. DUBOIS: We are certainly casting a wide net. In addition to our wonderful conversations with the Evangelical community, with the African-American Protestant community that are very full and robust, we are also meeting with many in the Jewish community, the Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus. A range of — I don’t want to start naming, then I will have left someone off — but a range of groups that weren’t necessarily engaged in a real full way before. We’re trying to reach out to them.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.
MR. JACOBS: OK. We’ve got a couple of questions from folks in the audience here about how they get involved and contribute to what you’re doing. What kind of opportunities are being created for citizens to get involved in faith-based initiatives and the White House office?
MR. DUBOIS: Sure. One of the most important things that we can do is share models about what works in communities across the country. If you have a great program that’s providing job training services or housing services or whatever the case may be, we want to know about it. There will soon be a new Web site for the Faith-Based Office were you can submit that and where we can share that across the country. One of the things that we want to be very intentional about, though, is that not every organization will receive a federal grant. So I would love — you know, I would love to be able to say one of the things you can do is come and apply for grant funding, but there are far many more organizations that are out there than grants available. But we can share information, and so having models of what works I think is going to be really important.
The other thing is simply serving in communities. The president is a huge supporter of national service, along with the First Lady and what individuals are doing in their own communities I think is helping to move this agenda forward.
MR. JACOBS: So in other words, you wouldn’t want people to kind of shift their focus to Washington. Rather, you’re saying the focus ought to remain in the communities and think of this as a facilitating mechanism for that.
MS. TIPPETT: Do you want to know? I mean, do you want people just to let your office know of what they’re doing?
MR. DUBOIS: If there’s something innovative, if there’s something new and unique that individuals or groups think that other organizations could learn from. I was talking with someone from an organization called Interfaith Furnishings in New Jersey, and they collect from different religious organizations and members from different houses of worship used furniture and then redistribute it in a sort of a unique way.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. DUBOIS: It’s a small example but I want to highlight that, so that if other houses of worship want to replicate that then now they know how to do it. So, yeah, we do want to know.
MS. TIPPETT: So they write you an e-mail?
MR. DUBOIS: They send me an e-mail, or they will go to a new Web site which should be about two weeks away. Again, it’s all very new. I don’t have the stationery yet.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
[Sound bite of music]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. My guest in this live public conversation is Joshua DuBois, the 26-year-old political strategist and Pentecostal minister who is leading the newly configured White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
[Sound bite of music]
MR. JACOBS: Here’s the last question. What would be the one or two influences that have shaped you and prepared you for this position and this unique time in history?
MR. DUBOIS: It’s a good question. You know, I think my upbringing. My mom was a single parent for a while, and we really struggled without too many resources and in fact sometime without a place to live. And I think that, going through that struggle allowed me to have a perspective that it can always be worse. So the terrain of politics and now in the administration, I can handle some ups and downs because you can always experience something worse. So that’s one thing. And then just the amazing experience of the campaign, of folks who saw then-Senator Obama and really got a sense that there was something more that their country could do together when they broke down the old barriers and looked across the table at someone who may be from a different racial background or religious background, even a different political party, but they could grab on to something in that person that was like them. And we saw that in communities all across the country, and that was just a life-changing experience. So those two things have really shaped me.
MS. TIPPETT: You know that we’ve had a poster for this event, and it’s a picture of you and Barack Obama and you’re standing over his shoulder and pointing at something. And just before we came in, I commented on how much you must love this photo, and you said you remember that day.
MR. DUBOIS: Yep.
MS. TIPPETT: Tell me about that day.
MR. DUBOIS: That was at the Compassion Forum in Pennsylvania at Messiah College, and it was a wonderful forum put on by our great friends at Faith and Public Life and some other organizations as well. I believe Sojourners was active in that. And it was a conversation with the candidates on faith and values and …
MS. TIPPETT: Do you remember what you were …
MR. DUBOIS: We were pointing at someone we both knew, and then I think I said, “Senator, look who’s there.” And then he pointed to and we’re like, “Hey.” And so, yeah.
MR. DUBOIS: That’s what that was. I wish it was more profound than that, but …
MR. DUBOIS: We were pointing at the way forward in our country.
MS. TIPPETT: I want to just ask you a couple more questions.
MR. DUBOIS: Sure.
MS. TIPPETT: Thank you, Larry. And this list flows out of that, and I don’t even know how to quite put words around this. I mean, in his inaugural address President Obama said, historically I think, that this is a nation of Christians and Jews, Muslims and Hindus — or maybe he said Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and nonbelievers. I think that that’s a really important focal point for you, because in these last years we haven’t just had these culture wars between conservative religious people and progressive religious people. We’ve had a kind of a battle that took place a lot in publishing between religious people and atheists. Right? And it’s a challenge that is responsive to what’s happening in our world and our culture to create a conversation across those dividing lines as well.
MR. DUBOIS: Yeah. Well, you know, it is in some ways. You know, the president’s a committed Christian but he understands that we’ve got a wildly and wonderfully diverse county. But it becomes less challenging when you focus on the issues.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. DUBOIS: You know, when you’re focusing on health care and on energy, cancer certainly does not know any religion and neither does climate change and the effects of it. So I think when you have that lens, that we’ve got some mutual challenges that we have to face across those lines, then it becomes easier to negotiate those differences.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. And, I mean, I’m aware in my work and I’m sure this must be also what you’re seeing, you have social action and service projects where humanists are every bit as engaged and passionate about an issue like the environment or poverty. And so what you’re saying is you’re connecting people across those lines of service.
MR. DUBOIS: That’s exactly right. Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. But I think it’s hard to talk about. I mean, I think that’s where some of this skepticism was coming in some of the early questions.
MR. DUBOIS: Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: “Well, where does faith go?” and “Do you stop claiming your religious ground?”
MR. DUBOIS: Well, and, again, we’re not talking about relativism here. We’re not talking about people having to check their beliefs at the door. You know, I think that does great disrespect to both religious folks and those who don’t adhere to a particular set of beliefs. But instead, just acknowledging that we are all different, that we all believe in some fundamental truth and that may be different, but we can still have points of common purpose.
MS. TIPPETT: OK. Anything you want to say or talk about that we didn’t touch on?
MR. DUBOIS: I don’t think so. This has been a wonderful conversation. Thank you for having me.
MR. DUBOIS: Thank you.
MS. TIPPETT: Joshua DuBois is the Executive Director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
[Sound bite of music]
MS. TIPPETT: If you missed part of this program or would like to hear it again, our Web site offers a free MP3 for you to download. We also filmed my entire live public conversation with Joshua DuBois, including all his responses to questions submitted by live and online audiences. View that unedited conversation at onbeing.org.
And we hosted a Speaking of Faith salon the morning after this event, a conversation with 13 individuals spanning those divides of background and identity, religious and nonreligious, that the new White House says it aspires to bring together. It was a lively and at times moving view, I felt, inside dynamics at the civic level in U.S. culture that are reshaping religion and the relationship between faith and public life. Here’s a brief excerpt of it.
SHANE ISAAC: One of the things that frustrates me as I look back at this sort of polarization idea, in my interpretation, when a number of Christian religious folk like me would walk out into the public arena and say, “Here’s what I believe, here’s what I have. You need it, but I don’t need anything from you.”
SUHAG SHUKLA: It’s been interesting as a second-generation Hindu-American to kind of see the emergence of a distinctly American Hinduism taking the positives from American culture and incorporating it and making it part of a living tradition.
JONATHAN GROSS: In Hebrew, the word for “prayer” and “work” are the same, “avodah”, and it’s not because prayer is so much work — at least that’s what I’m told — it’s because putting your values into action is a form of prayer, of making tangible what you believe.
PATRICIA GORDON-RICE: I worry about how government and faith communities are going to be working together because I am not part of a faith community and don’t see myself as part of a faith community. So it feels like, well, will I be the one who’s now marginalized?
MUNA NOOR: I think the platform that America has created for all of us is that discussion can happen.
KASHIF SAROYA: If I may share a story, quickly, it’s around Prophet Abraham, peace be upon him. He used to bring someone to his house for dinner. He didn’t eat alone. So one night he brought in a person and he was started and he started in the name of god and the person said, “Well, I don’t believe in God.” So the Prophet Abraham, peace be upon him, said, “Well, then, you don’t have place on my table. So you can leave.” And in the story he said that at the same time God addressed Abraham, peace be upon him, and said, “Who do you think fed him for 40 years? And you couldn’t stand him for one dinner?” No matter what religions, or no religions, or whatever faith, whatever we believe in, I think we have to work together to make our communities safe because that’s what we want our next generation to flourish in. And I think that will be a very important piece for me to take back from last night and from today.
MS. TIPPETT: You can watch or listen to that entire conversation at onbeing.org and share your thoughts.
The senior producer of Speaking of Faith is Mitch Hanley, with producers Colleen Scheck, Shiraz Janjua, and Nancy Rosenbaum. Our technical director is John Scherf. Our online editor is Trent Gilliss, with Web producer Andrew Dayton. Special thanks for this program to Tony Bol, the staff of the Fitzgerald Theater, and musicians Robert Bell and David Stenshoel. Also thanks to Johnny Vince Evans for our audio recording and to Ustream for hosting our live video stream. Kate Moos is the managing producer of Speaking of Faith. And I’m Krista Tippett.