Directing the Partnerships

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Announced appointments send signals, and as the top positions in the incoming administration fill up, I’m waiting to see who the president-elect chooses to head his new Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships (COFANP). Like the head of Bush’s Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, COFANP’s director will be charged with coordinating activities among satellite offices in federal departments and comparable state operations. But how will the enterprise proceed?
Much of the public discussion of the old regime has been tied up in debates over church and state. The Bush approach was predicated on claims that 1) faith-based organizations are more effective than government bureaucracies or secular non-profits; and 2) the former were the object of anti-religious discrimination on the part of public funding agencies. Research has shown that neither claim had a significant basis in fact. Meanwhile, as partisans have debated the issue of permitting faith-based hiring discrimination, Bush’s efforts have done nothing to increase the involvement of religious congregations in social service provision.
For its part, the Obama critique of the Bush effort (leading off the campaign’s position paper on the subject) is that it has been 1) underfunded; and 2) overly politicized. What the critique shows little awareness of is the varied character of social service provision from place to place around the country. In some locales, faith-based agencies have always been central to the mix; in others, not so much. A couple of days ago, Bob Wineburg of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, one of the leading experts in the field, took to the pages of the Providence Journal Bulletin to make his case for an approach that recognizes the importance of letting the folks on the ground determine what best suits their needs in strengthening local safety nets.
The Obama approach, which emphasizes partnerships among government agencies, large non-profits both secular and faith-based, and congregations, may be more capable of resisting the one-size-, one-ideology-fits-all of the Bush administration. Bush’s first director, John DiIulio, was a highly respected academic and a Democrat, but ideologically committed to a narrow vision of the task and politically inept. He crashed and burned in record time, and was replaced by a series of lesser functionaries. What the new regime requires is a director who knows the social-service landscape from both the governmental and non-profit sides, of sufficient stature to resist the inevitable desire of administrations for a uniform set of deliverables to brag about, and sure-footed enough to navigate the minefield of religion in American public life. After Wright and Warren, Obama does not need another faith-based drama.
Update: Pastordan pops G&C Dan for buying into Jim Wallis as Pappy of “the burgeoning religious left.” Make of that what you will. In his capacity as rapporteur on current COFANP kibbitzing, Wallis seems to be saying that the emphasis is on making the partnerships work and connecting the little folk to “policy.” I don’t know what policy means in this context exactly, but presumably the idea is that everyone get with the program, whatever the program is.