One of my all-time favorite tv shows is The West Wing. I loved watching smart characters who passionately believed in what they were doing, worked hard and smart, and loved the people with whom they worked. Aaron Sorkin’s writing, as always, was amazing, especially the dialogue.
Last Friday, I felt like I was a part of a really religious episode of the West Wing. I wasn’t actually in the West Wing or the White House proper, but pretty close to it. With about 100 other “religion scholars,” I received a day long briefing in the South Auditorium of the Eisenhower Building that sits within the White House compound hosted by the Obama administration’s office of Faith Based Initiatives. And I learned a lot.
The office for Faith Based Initiatives was formed during George W. Bush’s administration. It was an attempt to bring churches, synagogues, mosques, and other explicitly religious organizations into the mix in addressing pressing social needs. The Obama administration has not only continued the office, but greatly expanded its reach in virtually every corner of the federal government.
As Director Josh DuBois explained it, the Obama administration sought to strengthen the office by clarifying what faith based groups could and could not do (a lack of clarity that plagued early faith based initiatives), by establishing the fact that faith based groups did not have to hide or diminish their particular religious identities, and by placing liaisons for faith based initiatives in 13 governmental agencies–everything from the Department of Agriculture, to the EPA, to Veteran’s Affairs, State Department, HUD, etc. There is a representative of faith based initiatives at the table throughout much of the federal government.
Faith based groups work with the federal government on projects ranging from helping homeless vets, to summer feeding projects for children in poverty, to ending human trafficking, to disaster relief, to encouraging fathers regarding their family responsibilities, to interfaith service projects on nearly 300 college and seminary campuses. The list goes on and on.
While many of these projects include grants and other types of government financial support, much of the work of the office of faith based initiatives is simply putting people together. For instance, part of what they do is inform public school administrators that they can and should use faith based groups for service projects within their schools, or make sure that faith based groups “have equal footing” regarding initiatives in international efforts to eliminate disease, poverty, or human rights abuses. In other words, they advocate for faith based groups in areas that might have been closed to them in the past.
In the morning, we received briefings from senior level advisors. We heard from Susan Cook, the US Ambassador for religious freedom, Samantha Powers, who works on human rights and atrocity prevention in the State Department, Cecilia Munoz, the chair of Obama’s domestic policy council, and Mike Pyle, a special assistant to the president on the economy.
They all spoke to issues from their areas that they thought might interest a group of religion scholars. I couldn’t believe that I was in the room being briefed by persons who work in the government at this level. They were impressive. They knew their stuff not only at the public policy level, but also some of the theological and philosophical dimensions of aspects of their work. They were aware of Niebuhr and Cone and other theologians. The conversation about policy represented in the briefing possessed definite theological dimensions.
Now there are a lot of ways to bring together theology and public policy. You might agree with the theology, but not the policy, or the policy, but not the theology, or with neither. But what is undeniable is that theology has a place in informing policy at a significant level in the Obama administration.
The highlight of the day for me, however, was listening to the briefings from staff in the office of faith based initiatives. This was the part of the day that felt most like a West Wing episode. DuBois’ team was young, smart, dedicated, funny and exceptionally articulate. They talked about the initiatives that are taking place in their respective departments: Agriculture, HUD, HHS, Veterans Affairs, Education, etc. I could see immediate ways that both Rochester College and my graduate ministry students could and should be involved in some of these efforts. I learned a lot.
But the most impressive thing about the afternoon was hearing each of them talk about how their work came from a sense of ministry calling or vocation. Most, if not all, of them had been to seminary. Most had served congregations as pastors. They talked in moving ways about how much it meant to them to combine their faith journeys with public policy. And more, to see in very concrete ways that lives were changing and a difference was being made. They talked openly about God and their own personal sense of the Kingdom of God. Their faith journeys had led them here, to this work.
Most told specific stories of either the President or First Lady’s commitment to what they were doing. For instance, President Obama is vitally interested in the program for fathers, the first lady with issues of providing healthy food for children. All conveyed the belief that what they were doing was known and supported at the top levels of the administration.
I walked out of the briefing with napkins and plastic cups that bear the official seal of the white house. (I know that probably ran the deficit up a little more. Sorry.). But more I walked out inspired that things I care about in my work are also cared about and talked about in the White House.