Faith-Based Initiatives Under Obama

Last week, President Obama announced that he will continue the Bush administration's faith-based initiatives through a new Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Eboo Patel, founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core, talks about the new council and whether hiring practices will be different on Obama's watch.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Last week, President Obama signed an executive order that expands the Bush administration's Faith-Based Initiative into a new Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The council includes 25 religious and secular leaders and aims to relieve poverty, reduce the need for abortion, and create dialogue among different faiths. Government alone, the president said, cannot bring the change America needs and wants. The order did not resolve the major controversy about this issue during the Bush administration: Will religious groups that receive federal funds be allowed to discriminate and hire only those who share their faith?

We'd like to hear from those of you with experience in these faith-based and neighborhood partnerships. What do you do, and where do you draw the line between church and state? Our phone number, 800-989-8255; email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org; click on Talk of the Nation. Eboo Patel joins us now from the studios at Chicago Public Radio. He's the founder of the Interfaith Youth Core and the only Muslim appointed to the advisory council. Congratulations. Nice to have you back on the program.

Dr. EBOO PATEL (Founder and Executive Director, Interfaith Youth Core): Hi, Neal. Great to be with you.

CONAN: And as you know, the issue of discrimination, the church-state issue, is all-important to some people on both sides here. President Obama said it would be reviewed case by case. In a way, doesn't it then just postpone the decision? Doesn't that - can be a continuous distraction?

Dr. PATEL: Actually - well, first of all, let me say, Neal, that right now, I'm the only Muslim on the council, but it's expected that there'll be at least one other Muslim voice or member added. So, currently, 15 people have been appointed. We expect 10 more to be appointed.

CONAN: OK.

Dr. PATEL: Let me also just point out that the line between church and state is one of the wisest things that our founders ever did. And President Obama has mentioned that wisdom on that particular principle several times in his public statements during the campaign and during the first weeks of his presidency. I think he's actually put forth a very sensible principle for maintaining that line even as the Faith-Based Office goes about doing its work, and that principle is this: that churches, synagogues, mosques and temples who apply for money to do programs like running soup kitchens in homeless shelters can only use those federal dollars in ways that are constitutionally appropriate and legal. But those programs that are funded by our government that help our society, that - those legal dimensions would only apply to those particular programs. And Catholic churches, for example, would be able to hire only Catholic priests to run Catholic mass, in other words, to maintain their unique religious character.

I think it's an important balance to allow religious communities to maintain their religious character with the private funds that they generate themselves while also making sure that they abide by constitutional standards and the public funds that our government provides them to serve the greater needs of our society. That's the principle he's articulated. He said, in the gray areas, in the cases that are kind of on the line, he would ask the executive director of this office, Joshua DuBois, and the White House Counsel to review those cases on an individual basis.

CONAN: Well, there are cases where various Evangelical groups getting federal funds - this, of course, during the Bush administration, not the Obama administration - fired a woman because she was a lesbian.

Dr. PATEL: Right. I mean, that's the kind of thing that Joshua, who - the director of the office, would look at and I would imagine that President Obama would say, if we have given you funds to run a social-service program, you have to hire according to U.S. federal law and constitutional standards. And clearly, that type of case I think would be problematic to the Obama administration. But let me tell you, Neal, about what I am really excited about when it comes to this office and my particular service in the council, is that President Obama has set this up as a take-action council. And one of the priority areas of the council is interfaith cooperation. It's something that President Obama has talked about a number of times even in his first couple of weeks as president. One of the most beautiful parts of his inaugural address was when he said that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness.

(Reciting) We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture drawn from every end of the Earth, and because we have tasted the bitter swill of Civil War and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatred shall someday pass and America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.

What I am really excited about, as executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core, an organization I started basically at my dorm room in Oxford 10 years ago, is to help President Obama operationalize that vision, is to real create an interfaith youth movement with tens of thousands of young people all over the world bringing Muslims and Jews, Hindus and Buddhists, together to serve the common good. And it's that type of putting feet on the street to a vision that we have the opportunity to do with this new faith-based office.

CONAN: And as you look at the things that these faith-based initiatives, and neighborhood associations, too, can accomplish with government money, in part, well, there are things that they do that aren't done in any other way.

Dr. PATEL: I think what's interesting about the makeup of the council is just how diverse it is, Neal. So, it's, you know, faith-based social-justice heroes like Jim Wallis of Sojourners and David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, but it's also secular heroes, people who've been leading secular organizations who do amazing work, like the head of Big Brothers Big Sisters, like the head of Public/Private Ventures, and so, I think what President Obama is saying is that Muslim and Christian, believer and nonbeliever, what we have in common is a desire and a call to serve others. And we have to cooperate to do that, and that's the spirit of the council, in our first meeting, which took place in the Oval Office and then in the Roosevelt Room, was very much about what can we do together. Of course there're going to be some areas in which there's tension and rub, but how do we cooperate to serve others together? How can Muslims and Jews, Buddhists and Hindus, secularists and Baha'is, make sure that we are answering our call, the call of the golden rule to create a world where our brothers and sisters live healthy, happy, dignified lives?

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. We'd like to speak with those of you with experience with these kinds of organizations. 800-989-8255; email us, talk@npr.org. And this is Brad, Brad calling us from Pinedale, Wyoming.

BRAD (Caller): Yes, thanks for taking my call, Neal, and interesting topic. I've worked with a high-school youth group for - wow, I don't know - since I got out of high school about 16 years ago. And yeah, we simply don't even look at these federal options because of what they would then basically require, like you guys have been saying, us to do, which is hire non-discriminatively. As the statement has been made, I don't see how that - I mean, it's almost like it's discriminating - I see the same thing in the job force do, that, you know, you're the boss; this is how you want it to run. You know, the separation of church and state I see working both ways. We're supposed to be able to worship like we want, but if we want your money, yeah, I guess we'll open ourselves up to that, but I - that's why we won't because the faiths are not the same. They are all very, very different, and they all lead to a different way, and that's why we will never accept a federal...

CONAN: The government money, because then you'd have to accept the federal government's rules.

BRAD: Absolutely.

CONAN: So, the group you work with, Brad, what do they - what are you doing with the high-school students?

BRAD: It's nondenominational. We're just - we believe in the Bible and that's a controversial point. We believe that there is but one way, and that's not us who said it, that's what apparently - not apparently - that's what the word and Jesus said, so - and he was it. So, that's what we teach and preach, and we can - opening it up with other people would be opening it up to, oh, there's many ways, which is totally against what we see reading from cover to cover in the Old and New Testaments.

CONAN: And Eboo Patel, groups like the one Brad talks about, well, of course, the Obama initiative would have no impact on them whatsoever as long as they don't take the federal money.

Dr. PATEL: I think that that's right. But I think there's something beyond that, and I have deep respect for what the caller is saying about how he seeks to strengthen and deepen the religious identity of his community based on the biblical vision he adheres to. I think that that's actually entirely consistent with what we're trying to do with the faith-based office and really also the character of America. President Obama in his National Prayer Breakfast Address said as much - and I'm just going to quote a couple of lines from that. He said, there's no doubt that the very nature of faith means that some of our beliefs will never be the same. We read from different texts; we follow different edicts. But he also says that there is a dimension of all of our faiths which call us to serve others.

And in this way, I think what President Obama is doing is something that we've been trying to do at the Interfaith Youth Core for a decade, which is, for the purposes of interfaith cooperation, really separate Heaven and Earth; say, people worship differently; they believe in some different things; they might think that there is only one path to Heaven or only one community that can get to Heaven, and that's something that should be respected. But when it comes to how we cooperate together on Earth, we should be highlighting those dimensions of our traditions that can be encapsulated in the golden rule.

And President Obama listed a version of the golden rule in a variety of faiths; of course, Jesus saying, love thy neighbor as thyself; the Jewish tradition saying, that which is hateful to you do not do to your fellow; and Islam, a beautiful hadith of the Prophet Muhammad which says, none of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself. Buddhists and Hindus have similar statements in their traditions. So, I think what President Obama is saying is we enjoy the freedom of worship in America to worship in our particular and unique ways, and at the same time, the American character calls all of us to cooperate on those dimensions of our faiths which encourage us to serve others.

CONAN: Brad, thanks.

BRAD: And if I may say really quickly, I certainly agree as far as working together to help people in physical turmoil and in literal ways, certainly, but I also - I've got to say that in personal life, if I'm helping somebody to their death, I don't see how that's helping, and that's where I think a very strong line comes into play that always gets brushed aside. If all faiths believe different things, then either they're all wrong - because they all claim to be the way. I mean, they - most that I've been - that I've looked into and searched, that's what they claim, yet that isn't possible because they're all so very different. And so, if there is but one true way, then what is it? And whoever has it - I mean, if they truly have it, then you can't waiver from that. You have to - and obviously, I believe there is a certain layout for that. Obviously, somebody is saying, oh, we know the way, but we can kill everybody. That's not - that's wrong. And oh, there's one way and it helps everybody out under any circumstance, and this is really sick (unintelligible). But I'm just saying that's why I see that separation as absolutely pivotal because I do not believe through study that any of this is, yeah, helping people that's great, but in the end the bottom-line issue for everyone is death and what happens after death. That's what everybody is concerned with...

CONAN: Brad.

BRAD: And that's where we take our stand.

CONAN: Brad, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

BRAD: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with Eboo Patel, the founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core and now part of the Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the White House. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And this from Nora: Is there any room for atheists in this program?

Dr. PATEL: Absolutely. Some of our most talented staff at the Interfaith Youth Core are atheists or secular humanists, as many of them preferred to be called. I think what we really need is a movement of interfaith leaders who have the ability to take the religious diversity in the world, which too often leads towards conflict, and make it interfaith cooperation. And I think that Muslims can be great interfaith leaders; Christians can be great interfaith leaders; secular humanists can be great interfaith leaders. What it requires is a vision that brings people from different faiths together on those dimensions of their faith which call for service, while at the same time respecting, as Brad, the previous caller, was saying, the unique identities of these different faiths bringing together in concrete ways. Now, I'm sitting in Chicago, which is, of course, President Obama's hometown; it's also the city that hosted the 1893 Parliament of the World's Religions, and there was a statement made at that parliament which, I think, encapsulates the vision of President Obama's faith-based office, which is, from now on, the great religions of the world will make war no longer on each other and instead on the giant ills that afflict human kind.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Nancy, Nancy calling us from Louisville.

NANCY (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

NANCY: My experience was working at an agency that was originally founded by Catholic sisters. I'm Protestant. And the work was with women on the margins, was what we were always, told based on - and this were kids that were - girls that were emotionally disturbed and had horrible backgrounds, and it was very tough work, and it required some sort of faith...

(Soundbite of laughter)

NANCY: To work with them, but it worked real well, and I never felt pushed, for example, as an employee to be Catholic. They were quite respectful. I know we had a Hindu staff member for awhile. You know, we focused on the work; we didn't focused on the other stuff so much.

CONAN: On proselytizing, yeah.

NANCY: Yeah. And they were - in fact, I remember taking a Jewish girl at one time - I went to a Seder meal with her because in that setting there wasn't anything going on for her. So - and they were very respectful of the differences. They were very strong in their own beliefs, and we walked some sort of line in between the school where I was and some of the other settings - I don't know how it was, say, in dorms where they lived, but it seemed to me - the girls didn't seem to be too upset by the whole thing. We used to have some kind of interesting discussions because many of the people that worked there had social-work backgrounds out of the then Baptist seminary, it was different then. And so there were a lot of Baptists and we had some Catholics, and then there others of us that were other things. And I found, you know, that just the focus on the work with the girls was really what bound us together and then the rest of it was just kind of extraneous.

CONAN: Hmm. The work, Eboo Patel, the work, in this case, really does overcome a lot of differences.

Dr. PATEL: Actually, what struck me about that story - and thank you so much to the caller for that - is how an institution set up by a particular faith community, in this case the Catholic community, drew a diverse, a religiously diverse, group of people who were inspired by their own traditions - in some cases Protestants, in some cases Hindu; I imagine Jews and Muslims worked there also - all of them who wanted to express their faith through the service of others. I think that's actually a great story in America. So many of our hospitals were started by a particular religious community. Catholic hospitals have Jewish and Muslim doctors, in many cases, called by their faiths to be healers. Catholic universities have some of the best interreligious-cooperation programs in the country. I think of, for example, of Georgetown University or I think of Notre Dame's Kroc Center on Peacemaking, which has focus on religion and peacemaking. I think what we are ready for in America is the type of interfaith cooperation that that caller talked about. We've had a civil-rights movement; we've had a human-rights movement. I think it's time for an interfaith movement, and President Obama is setting the stage and giving us the call for that.

CONAN: Nancy, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

NANCY: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

NANCY: Bye.

CONAN: And Eboo Patel, thanks very much for your time today.

Dr. PATEL: Great to be with you, thanks, Neal.

CONAN: Eboo Patel, with us from Chicago Public Radio, he's executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core and president of the - and a member of the president's Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Tomorrow, it's your chance to talk with NPR's new CEO; Vivian Schiller joins us to take your calls. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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