But three years into his presidency, Obama’s marquee council of faith advisers has gone dark — a little-noticed postscript for a panel that he rolled out with fanfare and high expectations during his first weeks in office but ended up playing only a limited role in West Wing deliberations.
The president’s first Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships delivered a 163-page report in March 2010 and then disbanded. The second council has waited more than a year for a full slate of appointees and has yet to meet. And the hottest issue — whether religious groups that receive public money can discriminate in hiring — remains unresolved more than three years after Obama promised to address it.
“It’s the mysterious, disappearing faith-based council,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who advised the first council.
The extended hiatus has suddenly become more glaring as the issue of faith, an undercurrent of the 2008 campaign, makes a fierce and early appearance in the 2012 race.
Obama ignited the furor last month when he decided to mandate that religious-affiliated employers provide their workers with free birth control coverage. Since then, the attacks from his Republican challengers have been relentless: Rick Santorum accused Obama of practicing a “phony theology,” Mitt Romney claimed the president has “fought against religion” and Newt Gingrich alleged that the administration is “engaged in a war on religion.”
The absence of a functioning council prompted some of the original members to suggest that the White House would have benefited from one as it muddled through the contraception uproar. Some former members were so dismayed by the administration’s initial ruling Jan. 20 that they took it upon themselves to press the West Wing into reconsidering the move after the fact. They worked the phones and a handful signed a private letter.
“It would have been the council’s role to weigh in, and we did individually,” said Arturo Chavez, an original council member and president of the Mexican American Catholic College in San Antonio. “There was a failure somewhere in really weighing the consequences of this, and I don’t think the president was advised sufficiently about the consequences with the faith community.”
The Rev. Joel Hunter, a former council member and spiritual adviser to Obama, added: “Whenever there is a huge blowback on any move, there is a hesitancy and a questioning of are we still taken into consideration before something is put out.”
Any kind of formal action by the full council wouldn’t have been likely, given its narrow mandate to focus solely on how government can improve its partnerships with faith-based and nonprofit groups — controversial issues such as abortion and religious hiring were deemed off-limits from the start, irking some members. But individual appeals to the West Wing were always welcome, administration officials said.
The president remains committed to seating a second council, senior White House officials said, but it takes time to find the right mix of appointees.
Obama named 12 new members in February 2011, but they won’t meet until the full panel is named, aides said. More appointees still need to be identified, aides said, while others who have been tapped but not yet announced are undergoing a White House vetting. They are not subject to Senate confirmation.
“President Obama continues to expand and strengthen faith-based initiatives and the faith-based advisory council is an important part of that effort,” Joshua DuBois, director of the faith-based office, said in a written statement. “Advising the president on our ongoing partnership with faith-based groups and other nonprofits around the country is critical and we are committed to ensuring they have as much impact as possible. It is a big country with significant religious diversity, and we are very thoughtful about our approach.”
The now-idle council is a sharp departure from the hype surrounding its establishment only weeks after Obama took office.
Announced at the 2009 National Prayer Breakfast, Obama’s decision not only to preserve former President George W. Bush’s faith-based office but also to expand the mission with a new council appeared aimed at dispelling the notion, once and for all, that Democrats are more comfortable turning away from faith than embracing it.
Obama envisioned the council as the conduit for bringing a broader spectrum of ideological and religious voices into an overhauled Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, which had been criticized in the Bush administration as too focused on directing money to conservative groups that could turn out voters. Obama’s initial appointees — a former Southern Baptist Convention leader, a Hindu, an Indian-American Muslim, progressive Jewish leaders and an openly gay nonprofit head, among others — gave it the feel of an unusual Washington experiment worth watching.
“I don’t expect divisions to disappear overnight, nor do I believe that long-held views and conflicts will suddenly vanish,” Obama said at the prayer breakfast. “But I do believe that if we can talk to one another openly and honestly, then perhaps old rifts will start to mend, and new partnerships will begin to emerge.”
Obama assiduously courted so-called value voters in the 2008 campaign and the effort paid off. Among nearly every religious group, he received equal or higher levels of support than Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
But after years of progress, Obama’s supporters say, they worry that the Republican attacks in the past month will cement the narrative of a president hostile to religion when, in their view, the work of the faith-based office shows exactly the opposite.
The concern grew to such a degree last week that a group of clergy and nonprofit leaders organized a conference call to offer testimonials to reporters.
The administration’s relationship with faith-based groups is stronger than ever, said the Rev. Peg Chemberlin, president emeritus of the National Council of Churches and an original council member. Common ground is sought and found, religious freedom is respected and government partnerships with faith organizations are reaching record numbers, she said.
“This part of the administration is really an expression of who he is as a Christian,” said Hunter, senior pastor at the evangelical Northland Church in Orlando. “All of this work that is being done is not simply good government, it is also a genuine part of how he understands his own responsibilities and his own faith.”
But during the hourlong call, there was no mention of the lapsed council.
The White House maintains that the impact of the inaugural council already has been vast.
More than 70 percent of the council’s recommendations, detailed in the March 2010 report, have been fully or partially implemented, according to the White House. Those recommendations include opening the government’s 13th faith-based and neighborhood partnerships center at the Environmental Protection Agency and encouraging the president to hold annual Father’s Day events at the White House to honor exemplary fathers.
Obama also signed an executive order in November 2010, boosting federal oversight of faith-based groups that receive federal funds.
But the administration has yet to address a Bush-era rule allowing religious groups that receive federal funds to use religion as a basis for hiring. Obama had promised during the 2008 campaign to rescind it.
After taking office, however, Obama decided the Justice Department would review potential problems on a case-by-case basis — still a source of frustration to some former council members, who otherwise praised the White House for its handling of the board.
“There were times that we felt we could do more in terms of perhaps better access and some felt that the office itself, as an office of the White House, did not seem to have the same status as others,” Chavez said. “I can’t really say why that is.”
Those former members also are wondering when another group will carry on their work.
Hunter mused that the tense political environment may have slowed the appointment process but that the president himself won’t be deterred.
“I don’t think the current conversation about his personal faith or the calculation according to the political dynamics of the day is really going to slow him down,” Hunter said.