As Barack Obama appoints his cabinet there is one area upon which the president-elect and his aides, as well as the media have been largely silent - the President's Council for Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. In a speech on Faith Based Initiatives given on July 1, 2008 in Zanesville, Ohio, Obama said that that faith and values can be "the foundation of a new project of American renewal." Obama reached out to religious communities and individuals during the campaign and, aside from white evangelicals, he carried every religious grouping in America. The president elect enjoys substantial good will among these groups who are waiting to see how our multi-faith coalition will be leveraged to work for the common good in his administration.
This is especially pressing during this economic crisis. Living in Princeton just 15 minutes from Trenton, New Jersey, I am aware that religiously based charities such as The Crisis Ministry, Trenton Area Soup Kitchen, and St. Francis Inn are in dire need of resources as the cupboards are bare just as more people are coming for help every day. As part of Obama's push towards economic recovery, it is essential that he move swiftly to enlist and support religious allies: not only in helping the most vulnerable of our society, but also to provide a moral compass for the national agenda so that the poor are not forgotten in our haste to assist the middle and upper classes.
In addition to offering direct services to those in need, The President's Council for Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships also has the potential to model inter and intra religious cooperation. Most agree that the religious freedom enjoyed in America is unparalleled and that our county is a great place to practice faiths of all persuasions. The Council can be case-in-point number one for the President to promote the benefits of a religiously pluralistic society to skeptics both domestically and internationally. The Council should be staffed with people from a range of religious traditions and encourage joint projects between faith communities that offer new and effective programs to serve the poor and educate our youth. The President's council can be the place where the torn fabric of our society is woven back together even stronger by including the enduring threads from all of the religious traditions that thrive here.
There are still some difficult questions facing the President's Council for Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. This initiative will have to be depoliticized so that all religious groups feel equally valued within the White House. This means maintaining relationships with worthy current beneficiaries while forging new contacts with the entire range of religious groups who can effectively reach the most vulnerable. Using the monies from President's Council to reward political partisanship must stop, and not merely be mirrored towards Democratic leaning religious groups. Perhaps most sticky of all is the question of non-discriminatory hiring. If a group maintains their right not to hire say, a Muslim or a homosexual, then the President will have to draw on his time as a constitutional law professor to either draw the line, or at least make sure that there is equitable outreach to the Muslim and gay religious communities to make sure that they realize that the Council is a resource for all Americans. Of course, none of these problems are insurmountable for a religiously sensitive, fair and pragmatic administration.
There is enormous enthusiasm and hope in America right now, even within this difficult time. The religious community is praying for you Mr. President Elect. All hands are on deck as you requested. We are waiting.
Cross-posted from Beliefnet's Progressive Revival blog