From the beginning, we knew President Obama’s decision to appoint an Advisory Council for the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships was going to catch flack. There was going to be scolding from the very strict separationists, cautioning against throwing open the doors of the state to the church. There was going to be critique from the punditry, claiming that we punted on the most divisive issues.
Like other Council members, I’ve had to respond to these criticisms countless times over the past year, on media interviews and during public talks. I’ve repeated over and over points that this Council is about partnerships between entities solving social problems – it was not assigned divisive issues like hiring in faith-based organizations, and our discussions and recommendations all took place in the context of great respect for the principle of church-state separation.
Now that my one year appointment on the Faith Council is over, I find myself asking a fundamental question: Assuming that the President was warned about the likely fire the Faith Council would draw, why did he appoint one?
After reviewing several of his speeches, including the inaugural address and the historic Cairo speech, re-reading his autobiography Dreams from my Father, and especially after his meeting with us in the West Wing to receive the final report and thank us for our service, I had an ‘Aha’ moment: The Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships and the Advisory Council are deeply personal to this President. They bring together his life experiences and his core values in a unique way.
Barack Obama is a devoted father and also a son who grew up with a single mom. He converted to Christianity and became an active member of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, a faith community with dozens of social action ministries. He was a community organizer, bringing together Protestants, Catholics and Muslims (under a Jewish mentor) to help renew neighborhoods devastated by factories leaving and crime rising. He was a Board member of the Woods Fund, a foundation in Chicago that gives grants to organizations improving the life of poor people in the city. He was constitutional law professor at the University of Chicago Law School. And he was a legislator in the Illinois State Assembly.
Every single one of these pieces – family, faith-based social ministries, civil society organizations, interfaith cooperation, government, and church-state issues – is represented in the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships and the work of the Faith Council. Barack Obama’s vision of the good society is based on the idea of strong families, a vibrant civic sector that includes groups from various faith and secular backgrounds working together, and a government that serves as a catalyst, a convener and a capacity-builder, while always respecting the line between church and state.
And Barack Obama’s Faith Council gives me a vision for what active citizenship in that good society can look like.