God in Red and Blue America: The Universal Appeal of Faith-Based Initiatives?

“I believe that change comes not from the top-down, but from the bottom-up, and few are closer to the people than our churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques. That’s why Washington needs to draw on them.”

George W. Bush Barack Obama

Given the choice, most Americans would probably attribute the above statement about religion and government to President George W. Bush rather than President Obama. Interestingly enough, however, most Americans would be incorrect. In actuality, this religion-friendly quote comes from a 2008 campaign speech by then-Senator Barack Obama.

Since my last blog post, I have chosen to alter my original paper topic significantly. That is, rather than focusing only on President Bush’s religion-in-government philosophy, I decided to compare Presidents Bush and Obama’s religion-in-government philosophy/approach on one issue in particular: poverty relief and the faith-based initiative. In that comparison, I examine both presidents’ leadership skills in furthering the faith-based initiative. I then offer three recommendations for future faith-based proponents, based on Bush and Obama’s experiences.

Implicit in this examination, however, is perhaps the most interesting and striking aspect of my research: the similarity of the Bush and Obama visions for the faith-based initiative. Indeed, as hinted at in the beginning of this post, Presidents Bush and Obama both espoused their belief in an expanded role for religion in the fight against poverty. Beginning with Bush’s creation of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in 2001, faith-based organizations gained a larger role in the fight against poverty by gaining qualification for federal funding. But in the debate that ensued, Democrats argued that the faith-based initiative led only to “state-sanctioned discrimination”—and that the initiative was only an empty, clever maneuver to challenge Democrats on a traditionally “liberal” issue. Due in large part to the power of such attacks (and the relative impotence of Bush’s counteraction), the faith-based initiative fell into obscurity for the remainder of Bush’s presidency.

Nevertheless, in the 2008 campaign speech, then-Sen. Barack Obama proclaimed his support for the initiative—and that he would even expand the role that religion would play in the fight against poverty. Shortly after his election, Obama held true to that promise by retaining a faith-based White House Office (the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships) and adding a faith-based advisory council to his administration. However, after about two years, Obama had seemingly forgotten the faith-based initiative (evidenced by, among other things, his failure to name a new advisory council when the old council’s term expired).

What about the faith-based initiative attracted two quite different political actors? In what ways did Obama improve upon Bush’s mistakes? Why did both initiatives eventually fizzle out? I attempt to answer each of these questions (and a few others) in my paper.

As always, I look forward to other fellows’ reactions to this interesting (and increasingly rare) similarity between the political right and left. And, I’m also open to any suggestions on how to make sense of President Obama’s recent positions on topics such as ministerial exception and the recent contraception mandate: do these positions contradict his original advocacy for something like the faith-based initiative?

Good luck to all CSP Fellows as we approach the spring conference.

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About jcross9

From a small town in Central PA (Reedsville), I have just begun my junior year at Hofstra University in Long Island, NY. I am a Political Science major with a double minor in Mathematics and Philosophy and am a member of the Hofstra University Honors College. My research topic for CSP is the role of religion during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama presidencies. Outside of school, I sing in two of our music department's choirs, the Chorale and the Chamber Singers, and enjoy directing the choir and playing piano at my local church. After graduating in 2013, I hope to attend graduate school and obtain my PhD in Political Science.
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