In response to the question, “What is the future of the faith-based initiative?”

Jordan Ballor kindly asked me to offer a few words in response to this question, as I made it an area of expertise during the previous Administration. I’ve been working up to writing something more formal, but I’ll begin by thinking aloud here, as well as at my my home blog.

Without further ado, here’s what I posted over there:

By now, you’ve probably heard about the President’s attempt to tweak the initiative, renaming the office and expanding somewhat its mandate. If you leave aside the breathless media accounts of his efforts, the most measured response I’ve seen is this one, written by two prominent evangelicals long involved in these issues.

Candidate Obama called for an “all hands on deck” approach to our social problems, with government as the senior partner and the payer of the piper. He said much about the evils of religious discrimination and not much about the wonders of religious freedom. That was disheartening and led me to fear that he would follow the lead of his erstwhile Congressional colleagues and sacrifice religious hiring rights on the altar of equality. He may still do that, but not in one swell foop. Instead, we’re told, the new Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships (so different from the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives!) will consult with the Department of Justice about the law and these rights on a case-by-case basis. Perhaps, then, the Obama Administration will nibble away at religious hiring rights somewhat out of the limelight, avoiding the public repudiation of them embraced by candidate Obama. And I have a hard time believing that the President will spend any political chips resisting the efforts of Congressional Democrats to promote equality and non-discrimination at the expense of religious liberty.

In other words, I think that the President is trying to extend his honeymoon a bit, but that, in the end, the only deckhands he’ll really welcome are those who are willing to serve secular governmental ends in a secular governmental way.

One last point: the new head of the OFBNP, Joshua DuBois, seems to get high marks from everyone. I can’t speak from any experience of him, up close or at a distance, which is only to say that he wasn’t involved in the substance of these issues during the Bush Administration. I will note that he comes to this position from the political side of Obama’s life (is there any other?) and that he lacks the stature and long-standing experience with faith-based social services that all those associated with the Bush Administration efforts had. Perhaps this is a good thing, on some level, for if this version of the faith-based initiative is closer to the political heart of the Obama Administration, perhaps folks outside the OBNP will take it seriously, which seemed always to be the problem in the Bush Administration.

But then let’s not delude ourselves about the nature of this initiative: its goal seems above all to be to keep the religious Left engaged (as opposed to enraged) and to charm those theologically and socially conservative evangelicals who are charmable.

We’re facing a genuine challenge to religious liberty here, one that can’t be managed just by withdrawing from government’s embrace. This government will almost inevitably embrace more and more, likely trying to dominate its partners and crowding out those who are reluctant to play.

And lest you think that this Bush Administration stepchild is the only program at risk, watch closely to see what President Obama’s actions reveal about how he’ll deal with other issues in which government and religion intersect. Consider, for example, how his Adminstration will treat healthcare providers who have conscientious objections to certain medical procedures and how it will regard those who have scruples about same-sex marriage. Stated another way, I’d bet that claims couched in the language of equality will almost always win out over those phrased in the language of liberty.

I’ll be watching.