Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

A View from the Intersection of Church and State: Promoting Partnerships in both Obama and Bush Administrations

Ben O'Dell


May 13, 2011
by Ben O’Dell

Over the past seven years, within both the Bush and Obama Administrations, I have had the pleasure of promoting partnerships between faith-based and neighborhood organizations and the federal government.

Upon assuming control of the White House, the Obama Administration set out its own path, identifying specific differences that set faith-based and neighborhood partnerships apart from faith-based and community initiatives under the Bush Administration.  These include having specific policy priorities for these partnerships, creating an Advisory Courcil to provide feedback from stakeholders about how to improve this work, and  being up front about the lack of grant funding relative to all the great faith-based and community programs at work in communities across the country.

These distinctions, along with lessons learned from the Bush Administration’s efforts, have led to differences in how faith-based and neighborhood partnerships are promoted within federal government. In my experience, the Obama Administration’s efforts to promote faith-based and neighborhood partnerships have consisted of increased communication inside the Administration as well as with external stakeholders.  Communication efforts within government include daily calls where staff who promote faith-based and neighborhood partnerships in various federal agencies connect with each other and with the White House.  The Obama Administration has also emphsized communicating this work to stakeholders outside of government, using the White House Partnerships Blog, as well as an extensive series of conference calls, to share information and listen to leaders across the country. In fact, it feels like I have participated in more conference calls, drafted more pieces for public distribution and facilitated more communication about efforts within the Administration in the past two years than I did in the entire six years I worked on these issues in the last Administration.   

Under the last administration, we successfully established a “level playing field” within federal government where faith-based and smaller nonprofits could apply for federal funding, removing both real legal barriers and addressing a cultural bias within government toward federal funding of faith-based service providers. We worked to build the capacity of both faith-based and smaller nonprofit organizations to successfully apply for federal funding and achieve specific results through those federally funded programs.  But there is never enough funding for all the organizations serving our communities. In response, the new Administration has also promoted partnerships where information and expertise found within government is exchanged with faith-based and community leaders.  From making sure communities have resources to promote responsible fatherhood to promoting deeper relationships between FEMA and faith-based disaster relief orgnaizations, these are efforts that are not tied to grant dollars.  Instead, they are tied to the needs of the community, helping faith-based and community leaders have the knowledge, tools and resources developed by the federal government to address those needs. 

When the Bush Administration set up the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, they also placed corresponding offices within multiple Cabinet agencies in order to address both real and perceived bias against faith-based partnerships within these agencies.  Over time, the Bush Administration grew to understand the unique strengths these offices afforded, expanding the number of these offices from five to twelve. These offices—the Centers for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships—generate ideas and opportunities that can flow up to the White House to be highlighted.  At the same time, the White House can connect specific priorities and objectives to the resources and opportunities present within federal agencies.  The Obama Administration has added to this effort, placing an additional Center at the Environmental Protection Agency. 

Across both Administrations, I can’t speak highly enough about the caliber of people this work attracts.  It has been a pleasure to serve with individuals who share a sincere and deep commitment to those in our communities who are hurting and struggling against all odds.  The White House and the Centers have run toward the most vulnerable populations where others might have shied away.  Together, across both Administrations, we have asked how we can best leverage the tools available through the federal government to most effectively address the needs of those who our respective religious convictions and deep moral obligations call us collectively to serve.

Ben O’Dell resides outside of Washington, D.C. in Centreville, VA with his wife, Kristin and his new fatherhood initiative, 7 month old Norah Grace.  Views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone. These views should not be linked in any way with any of the organizations with which the author is, or has in the past been, associated.






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