When President Barack Obama announced his Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, he made one thing clear: He will keep church and state separate and not show any favoritism.
Speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday, the president said the common ground of his faith-based office will be that all religions teach people to care for one another.
"In a world that grows smaller by the day, perhaps we can begin to crowd out the destructive forces of zealotry and make room for the healing power of understanding," he said, adding: "This is my hope. This is my prayer."
The office has essentially the same structure as President Bush's version, with faith-based offices housed in departments such as Health and Human Services and Justice. But he has created a new council that will advise the office: 25 people who have grass-roots experience working in poor neighborhoods and overseas. The council will include secular groups that do social programs, as well as religious groups. And in an attempt to avoid the image of the previous faith-based office, it will include religious conservatives and liberals.
But Obama didn't discuss the biggest controversy: Can religious groups receiving federal money for social services discriminate in their hiring practices?
This debate plagued the Bush administration's faith-based office for eight years. Bush believed that religious groups should be allowed to hire people who believe the same things they do and fire people if they don't, because their beliefs shape everything they do. This policy sparked a spate of lawsuits after, for example, gays who worked for evangelical groups were fired because they did not hold the same views on homosexuality.
The policy also infuriated many people who said that if you take government money, you can't discriminate.
How the faith-based office will resolve this debate is unclear. Last summer, Obama said he would change the policy to bar hiring discrimination. But now, after talking to faith-based groups such as World Vision, the White House appears to be having second thoughts.
For now, the office will hold to the status quo, in which some agencies allow discrimination and others do not. The new executive director of the office will be conferring with White House counsel and the attorney general over the next few months.
The person all this falls on is Joshua DuBois, a 26-year-old who has worked as an associate pastor in a Pentecostal church and who joined Obama when the president was serving in the Senate. DuBois showed early signs of combining faith with activism when he was a 16-year-old freshman at Boston University.
After Amadou Diallo was shot 41 times by New York City police officers, DuBois drew up a sign that said "No More" and proceeded to hold a 41-hour vigil for the 41 shots. By the end of his cold vigil — it was wintertime — hundreds of students had joined him.
The incident was a foretaste of his style: DuBois is deeply religious, but believes religion should be lived out in action in helping the poor and striving for social justice. In that, he sounds a lot like President Obama. Indeed, DuBois says he first noticed Obama when he gave his 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention, and after several attempts to join Obama's staff, he finally got a job in his Senate office.