How Will Faith Play Into Obama's Administration?

Host Alex Cohen talks with Kevin Eckstrom, editor of Religion News Service, and David Kuo, former deputy director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, about how President-elect Obama plans to utilize the initiative. Cohen also talks with Lori Lipman Brown, the director of Secular Coalition for America, about the role secular values will play in the next administration.

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ALEX COHEN, host:

From the Studios of NPR West, this is Day to Day. I'm Alex Cohen. Happy holidays. Coming up, it's the hotel where each of the rooms has its own name, monickers like Chestnut Foal, Paris Violets and The Matterhorn. A trip to the Madonna Inn, that story just ahead. First though, we spend this Christmas day talking about the intersection of religion and politics. Faith is a topic that came up often on the campaign trail. Here's an excerpt of then Senator Barack Obama talking about his faith at a conference two years ago.

(Soundbite of then Senator Barack Obama's speech)

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): When we ignore the debate about what it means to be a good Christian or Muslim or Jew, when we discuss religion only in the negative sense rather than in a positive sense, others will fill that vacuum - those with the most insular views of faith or those who cynically use religion to justify partisan acts.

COHEN: Joining me now to talk about the role faith is likely to play in President-elect Obama's administration is Kevin Eckstrom. He's editor of Religion News Service. Welcome to the program, Kevin.

Mr. KEVIN ECKSTROM (Editor, Religion News Service): Thanks for having me.

COHEN: The president-elect recently asked Evangelical Pastor Rick Warren to deliver the opening prayer at his inauguration ceremony, and it's a decision that's upset many people, including those who feel that Pastor Warren's stance towards homosexuals makes him an inappropriate choice. What message do you think that that decision sends about the role faith might play in Obama's administration?

Mr. ECKSTROM: I think it shows that he's going to have a lot - a different cast of characters than people might have thought. I think what the Rick Warren invitation signals is that you're going to have a broad-based religious outreach, probably a little bit broader than George Bush had. It's going to feature a cast of characters that maybe we haven't seen around the White House in a while, and some folks who may have felt shut out of the Bush White House, I think, will get a little bit more prominent spot in the Obama White House.

COHEN: The Democratic National Convention kicked off this summer with an inter-faith gathering, and it featured leaders from many different religious traditions. How likely are we to see that kind of spirit of outreach under a President Obama?

Mr. ECKSTROM: I think you're going to see a lot of it, actually, because the interfaith crowd, if you will, and by that, you know, some of the minority faiths - Hindus, Muslims, even Jews to a certain extent - feel a lot more comfortable around a Democrat, and Obama feels a lot more comfortable around these folks than, I think, President Bush probably did. So, I think you're going to see some genuine interfaith gestures there. Now, what that translates to them into policy is sort of an open question, but I think you will see a much broader array of religious activists coming in and out of the White House.

COHEN: How about the black church? Black Christian leaders played very critical roles helping Barack Obama win the election. Do you think they might be calling in favors over the next couple of years?

Mr. ECKSTROM: You know, I think that's sort of the one unanswered question that we haven't really been able to get answered, and it's sort of an awk... delicate question in a way because black churches don't want to be treated any differently. They don't want to, you know, think that they have a spot at the front of the line ahead of anyone else. But he is one of their own. He was formed and molded in the black church, and he certainly speaks their language, and they sort of come from the same background. The black church leaders that we've talked to say they don't expect anything special from President Obama. But I think, what you're going to see is that they're going to get invited more to the White House. Their views are going to be considered perhaps a lot more than they were under the Bush administration. The black church has a chance to have a very receptive ear that they haven't had in a long time.

COHEN: Kevin, on the policy front, the president-elect said he will continue the Faith-Based Initiatives program, but that he's going to make some changes. What is he calling for?

Mr. ECKSTROM: Under the Bush administration, they have been fairly clear that churches who are recipients of these federal funds can use them to advance a Faith-Based message. So, you can have the gospel be an integral part of your drug rehab program, for example. President-elect Obama has signaled that he's a little less comfortable with that and is queezy about the idea of federal funds being used to proselytize or federal funds being used to discriminate in hiring. So under the Bush plan, a Baptist church that wanted to hire only Baptists to run their soup kitchen could do that. President-elect Obama is a little bit more nervous about using federal funds to say who churches can and cannot hire. So those are the two big changes, but clearly, he believes in the value of the program because he said that not only wants to maintain it, but also expand it.

COHEN: Kevin Eckstrom edits the news wire Religion News Service. Thank you, Kevin.

Mr. ECKSTROM: Thank you.

COHEN: For more on the faith-based initiatives program we call David Kuo. He served as deputy director of the office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives under President Bush. Though many people tend to associate the program with the current administration, he says the concept has been around much longer.

Mr. DAVID KUO (Former Deputy Director, Faith-Based and Community Initiatives): I remember talking to Ethel Kennedy four or five years ago, and we're talking about the Faith-Based thing and she said, Faith-Based? She goes, Why do people think this is new? We did this during the 1960s. We just called it, you know, Community Organizing. You know, and I think people need to remember that this Faith-Based thing isn't actually all that new. You know, Faith-Based organizations are so utterly and completely vital to the social fabric of the United States that we could literally not take care of the people we take care of without them.

COHEN: You served as the deputy director of the Faith-Based Initiatives program during the Bush administration. What do you see as some of its most notable accomplishments?

Mr. KUO: I've been a critic of it so beginning with the accomplishments probably isn't a bad idea. And that is that it raised Faith-Based organizations to, you know, a national level and made them part of the national conversation, and that's a good thing. And I guess the other good thing is it really did educate organizations for the very first time about how to interact with the federal government. And I think that it exposed the federal government itself to the idea that these Faith-Based organizations, many of which had received federal money for a long time, that people in the government didn't need to be afraid of them.

COHEN: As you mention, you're also been critical of the program. One of the flaws that you've noted includes charges that funding was used for mobilizing religious voters in securing Republican wins. In your opinion, what went wrong?

Mr. KUO: I think what went wrong was there was never a core conviction in the White House that this is something that mattered to the president. You know, the idea of helping Faith-Based organizations or helping the poor or distributing billions of dollars to them wasn't a lingo that people spoke.

COHEN: Well, and on the other side of the aisle, there was Democratic opposition, to a certain extent, of the Faith-Based Initiative programs underneath President Bush. Now that there will be a Democrat in the White House, do you think that that will change?

Mr. KUO: It will be a good question. You know, and I think part of it will depend on how much President Obama pushes some of the hot-button issues. You know, and unfortunately, one of the hot button issues is this topic of, you know, so-called religious hiring, so-called religious discrimination, you know, which simply means the right of the Faith-Based organizations to be able to hire people who share the same faith. Now, the question becomes what happens to that right when federal funds are involved, and you know, unfortunately, President Bush made it a big political deal, to answer, you know, to say, oh, they have to hire people based on - they have to have this right to hire. President Obama apparently is going to say, well, they absolutely cannot have that right to hire. And, you know, I just hope that he doesn't get bogged down in that issue because at the end of the day, you know, it's not an issue that is fundamentally important to people on the ground.

COHEN: Given your experience with these issues, what one piece of advice would you give to President-elect Obama when it comes to dealing with Faith-Based Initiatives?

Mr. KUO: My advice to him would be don't get bogged down in the small, in the political issues. Focus on the big issues and the big issues are, you know, the issues that care about the poor.

COHEN: And any advice how not to get bogged down in the politics? Easier said than done, no?

Mr. KUO: Oh, very much easier said than done. But unfortunately, what he has before him is this extraordinary economic crisis. And I was talking to a friend who is part of a very, very large donor-advised fund, who was saying that, I think, for the first time, in a very long time you know, real, material, physical poverty in the United States isn't going to just be isolated to small pockets, that it will be able to be seen around us. And you know, and that's a huge, huge tragedy. But perhaps it is that tragedy that will allow President Obama to be able to make the Faith-Based and Community Initiatives not political at all, but really have a material impact on helping people.

COHEN: David Kuo served as deputy director of the White House office for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. He currently is the CEO of culture11.com. Thank you, David.

Mr. KUO: Oh, it's my pleasure.

(Soundbite of music)

COHEN: Many Americans aren't comfortable with the notion of religious faith influencing policy. Some even go as far as lobbying Washington on behalf of atheists, agnostics and other nontheistic Americans. Lori Lipman Brown heads a group that does just that. It's called the Secular Coalition for America. She told me the coalition is looking forward to the new administration.

Ms. LORI LIPMAN BROWN (Director and Lobbyist, Secular Coalition for America): We know that one of the first things Obama promised to do is to get rid of the limitations on embryonic stem cell research, and that's a wonderful thing for medical science. On the faith-based initiative, we know that the new president has decided to continue them, but he also said that he would no longer allow religious discrimination in hiring for secular social services with government funds. That's a huge difference. We're also very hopeful that when Obama continues faith-based funding, that he will make sure that the grants will be given based on who's doing the best job and who makes the best grant proposal, not trying to sift money to religious groups away from secular groups just because one's religious and one's secular.

COHEN: It's the holiday season, and one of your fellow organizations, the American Humanist Association, has launched an ad campaign tied to Christmas. These are signs that have appeared on billboards, on buses and they say, why believe in a God? Just be good for goodness' sake. What's the thought here behind this campaign?

Ms. LIPMAN BROWN: I know that the motivation is to get people who are humanists to understand that there is an organization that they can affiliate with and meet other people who are humanists. But I think it has an even broader impact, and that is that to the many, many people who say to me, I don't understand how you can be an ethical person if you don't believe in God, it lets people know that, yes, I believe we can be good for goodness' sake. That someone can live an ethical, moral, decent life, reach out to our fellow human beings, without necessarily having a God-belief.

COHEN: Lori, if you don't mind, I'd like to ask you a personal question. We're in the midst of Hanukkah. It's Christmas, how does a nontheist spend the holidays?

Ms. LIPMAN BROWN: Most of us like parties. So any excuse for a party will do. So we'll go to one person's Christmas party and to another person's Hanukkah bash. A lot of us celebrate the solstice and of course, there's HumanLight, which is the humanist celebration of the light within human beings and generally just enjoying the season.

COHEN: Lori Lipman Brown, director of the Secular Coalition for America. Thank you, Lori, and happy holidays.

Ms. LIPMAN BROWN: Thank you, Alex.

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