The White House Office of Faith-Based Partnerships

President Barack Obama has announced the expansion of aid to faith-based partnerships. His executive order built upon President Bush’s White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Partnerships initiative, slightly changing the name to the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. As has been much discussed, government support of faith-based initiatives calls into question the separation of church and state. The worry is that federal funds may go to businesses whose hiring or service provision discriminates against people with different religious beliefs. At The National Prayer Breakfast this month, President Obama announced the office and called for religious leaders to let go of intolerant attitudes. He asked America to return to pluralism:

the particular faith that motivates each of us can promote a greater good for all of us. Instead of driving us apart, our varied beliefs can bring us together to feed the hungry and comfort the afflicted; to make peace where there is strife and rebuild what has broken; to lift up those who have fallen on hard times. This is not only our call as people of faith, but our duty as citizens of America, and it will be the purpose of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships that I’m announcing later today.

President Obama promises the White House office aid will extend outreach to organizations based on the impact of their work, not the influence of faith-based institutions. He also ruled out proselytizing and laid down the first practical outcome of launching outreach is to to improve services that reduce poverty. In addition, the president has adopted a pluralistic vision for reaching out to the Muslim community in the Arab world. He hopes to open a dialogue with Islamic leaders around the world and believes it can happen soon.

Obama’s administration hopes to draw upon common values to forge partnerships between all faiths and communities to best provide services to citizens. Member of the office’s Advisory Council, interfaith leader Eboo Patel is an expert in faith-based projects and has a Muslim background. He started the Interfaith Youth Core and writes about his work and organizations that also taking part in the movement and dream of pluralism which he says is led by youth from The New Interfaith Generation.

President Obama’s plan to extend the impact White House aid also advances the pluralistic vision coined by Patel. For instance, ABC News reported that 20-something Josh DuBois was appointed director of the White House office in order to revitalize interfaith dialogue on the federal level. DuBois said he would use his experience in Obama’s campaign to lead successful community outreach and partnerships to improve on deliverable service projects to meet goals of the greater community.

The expanded White House office will work to advance pluralism and democracy in society as a whole, based on successful grassroots decision-making. Obama hopes the office will also guide diplomatic efforts to improve relations with the global Muslim community, and create a model for interfaith dialogue. Eboo Patel, also sees the US as a model of mutual respect emerging at home, and also serves the global community to mutual gain. In fact, Patel believes that pluralism the great idea of our time. The interfaith movement takes shape in the US as a return to an inclusive vision for democracy, and can lead to real change in communities around the Muslim world as well. Eboo Patel blogged about his thoughts on Obama’s promise to to the Muslim world, saying that the president’s approach is a positive change for citizens. “America is being America again,” he says “to its own citizens, and the rest of the world.”

Democracy can benefit from listening to the Muslim world and in the diversity of nations around the world. The wealth of perspectives, and beliefs, can advance democracy as long as citizens agree to accept them, and government be willing to listen, and both can agree on goals to improve the greater good. As long the faith community believes in the goal of democracy and is motivated by faith in positive change, the White House office aid could transform interfaith partnerships and create models for outreach in the US. The value of pluralism could, however, become overshadowed by past conflicts and core values, creating political gridlock. As Obama articulated in his inaugural address, the past is no reason to lose hope in a new era. The first president to address Muslims in his first speech as president, he inspires hope:

We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.

President Obama’s executive order to expand his administration’s support of non-profit work to faith-based organizations advances pluralism, and restores dignity in the US, maybe even in relations abroad. It is questionable whether faith-based institutions can handle compromising their business practices to be inclusive way without discriminating against people of other faiths or atheists. Debates over hiring practices are ongoing and will be handled case-by-case, President Obama has said. It’s also unclear whether countries in the Muslim world will listen to the US or accept models as more of the same, only the new administration has a new name.

What do you think of what President Obama said about religion at the National Prayer Breakfast and in his inaugural address? Where do you think Obama should pick to deliver for his first speech to Islamic leaders? Do you think Muslim communities around the world can also believe in a pluralistic dream? Can interfaith dialogue can help leaders in the Muslim world and elsewhere respond to shared threats like terrorism? Also worth asking, is the money to support faith-based organizations really the best way rebuild the struggling economy in communities throughout the US?

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