Progressive religious groups hope for a new day

The Washington Post says that progressive religious groups are hoping that the new administration in Washington will be more sympathetic to their causes and will act on poverty, the environment and social justice issues.

The faith agenda that dominated the Bush years focused on abortion, stem cell research and same-sex marriage. But there were large portions of the religious community that the former administration would not talk to.

“The last administration showed no interest in talking to a large chunk of the religious community,” said Melissa Rogers, director of the Center for Religion and Public Affairs at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. “We’re already seeing change. . . . This administration, so far as I can see, is not making a similar mistake.”

During the transition, the Obama transition team reached out to a wide variety of religious groups looking for advice on a wide variety of issues.

Between the election and the inauguration, Obama’s staff held more than 20 meetings with a diverse mix of religious groups that included mainline Protestant organizations such as Lutheran Services in America as well as the Salvation Army, Prison Fellowship and the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.

Those attending said administration officials were seeking advice on how the new White House can work with faith organizations through Obama’s Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The meetings also focused on such issues as the environment, AIDS worldwide, Middle East policy, detainee interrogations, criminal justice reform and the economy.

High-level Obama staff members attended the sessions, which were held at the transition headquarters or by teleconference. They included Melody Barnes, director of the Domestic Policy Council; Heather A. Higginbottom, the council’s deputy director; and Michael Strautmanis, Obama’s director of intergovernmental relations.

On Thursday, Obama named Joshua DuBois, a 26-year-old Pentecostal pastor who ran religious outreach for the campaign, to head the White House’s new office for faith-based programs, a White House aide said. DuBois is close to the president, and faith leaders see his ascent as a sign of the importance of their causes to the new administration.

Writing in America, John J. DiIulio Jr., the first director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, says the legacy of the Bush administration was very disappointing, including favoritism, lack of accountability and objective measurement.

The whole truth is that America’s “armies of compassion” remain much as Bush described them in his maiden campaign speech in 1999: “outnumbered and outflanked and outgunned,” needing “more support, public and private” and forced to “make bricks without straw.”

The whole truth is that religious nonprofits, large and small, national and local, have been struggling harder than ever to meet human needs begotten by increases in poverty and unemployment. Thanks to well-meaning leaders and staff in my former office, Bush’s faith-based initiative had a little post-2006 surge, but the office’s “mission accomplished” hype unintentionally masked and mocked the unmet needs.

Dilulio says that “to succeed, Obama, a former Catholic Charities community worker in Chicago, must insist that all grantees serve all people in need without regard to religion. He must keep the faith-based effort fact-based, bipartisan and open to corrections. And he must honor all campaign pledges to create or expand programs that benefit low-income children and families.”

Read the Washington Post: Progressive Faith Groups Now Trying to Shift Debate

Also read America: ‘Faith-Based’ Hopes

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