- President Biden signed an executive order to reestablish the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
- Critics claimed that the former president’s actions were aimed at pandering to the evangelical Christian portion of his voter base.
- The Partnerships Office will not give preferential treatment to religious organizations over secular ones.
President Biden signed an executive order on Sunday to reestablish the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. According to the White House Briefing Room, the Biden-Harris administration commits to promoting partnerships with faith-based and neighborhood organizations to help people in need. Among the first items on the agenda to be addressed by this office are:
- The Covid-19 pandemic response.
- Boosting economic recovery.
- Combating systemic racism.
- Escalating climate crisis.
- Increasing opportunity and mobility for historically disadvantaged communities.
- Strengthening pluralism.
Same Song, Different Verse
This is not a new concept. Similar action has been taken by Republican and Democrat administrations in recent years, beginning with President George W. Bush establishing the first White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Bush said,
“Government cannot be replaced by the efforts of religious and other community organizations, but the government can and should welcome such organizations as partners.”
The Obama-Biden White House extended this initiative, as did the Trump-Pence administration. Each one put their spin on their approach to progress in terms of specific plans and policies.
They Didn’t Mention That.
In reading the White House Briefing Room statement on President Biden’s executive order, there are references to both the Bush and Obama administration’s efforts in this type of partnership. Any mention of President Trump’s action in this area is conspicuously omitted. However, it’s not due to a lack of action by the former president. According to USA Today, in May of 2018 on the National Day of Prayer,
“Trump signed an executive order revamping the White House office on faith issues . . . restoring a Bush-era initiative to get religious groups more involved in providing federally funded social services.”
Although it cannot be cited as a definite reason for the omission, the Biden-Harris White House may have overlooked the Trump administration’s legacy in this area because Trump’s executive order repealed specific Obama era rules. These were rules that limited groups’ ability to get federal funds to preach their religious faith and beliefs to the people seeking help.
No Preaching Allowed
Critics claimed that the former president’s actions were aimed at pandering to the evangelical Christian portion of his voter base. According to the Brookings Institution, white evangelical Christians tend to vote Republican by a large margin. Rachel Laser, the CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said, “The whole Trump-Pence line of activity around this issue is enabling fundamentalists to impose their religion on the rest of us.”
This is typical of the angst that accompanies any conversation about the place of faith within the federal government. How far should alliances between the federal government and faith-based community organizations go for the sake of progress in terms of social welfare? It often depends on who you ask and whether or not the candidate they voted for occupies a seat of power.
People are Hurting
While opinions vary, most everyone on the political spectrum seems to be at ease with federal partnerships between religious and secular community organizations as long as those organizations stick to humanitarian outreach. After all, everyday needs affect everyone universally regardless of their political and religious affiliations or lack thereof. President Biden himself emphasized this point stating,
“There are no Democrats or Republicans dying from this pandemic, or losing their jobs, going hungry and facing eviction in this economic crisis, or facing the sting of systemic racism or the brunt of the climate crisis. They are fellow human beings. They are fellow Americans. And this is not a nation that can, or will, stand by and watch the suffering around us. That is not who we are. That is not what faith calls us to be.”
Just Stick to Humanitarian Outreach
Providing for universal material needs like food, clothing, and shelter allows these kinds of partnerships to exist without compromising the notion of keeping the church and state separated. Problems arise over the idea of faith-based institutions preaching their beliefs as part of their federally funded humanitarian activities.
For example, it’s acceptable to give food away to the needy regularly on the property of a faith-based institution. However, it’s not ok to require those seeking help to participate in a religious service or observance to obtain help. The White House Briefing Room emphasized that “church-state separation and freedom for people of all faiths and none” will be fundamental to the work of this office.
Additionally, the Partnerships Office will not give preferential treatment to religious organizations over secular ones. Charitable groups that are entirely irreligious will be able to receive federal aid just like faith-based groups. In summary, faith within the federal government is sufficient as long as federally funded activities remain secular and humanitarian rather than spiritual and religious.
Faith at the Federal Level?
This approach to faith-based partnership will support a relatively small portion of what these community organizations do to express their religious beliefs. Ironically, this may accurately reflect the population’s relatively small level of faith in the nation’s political representatives.
According to the Pew Research Center, “Just 20% of U.S. adults say they trust the government in Washington to do the right thing.” Despite Washington’s attempts to partner with faith-based organizations in communities throughout the country, it seems that the American people have little faith regarding the activities of those on Capitol Hill.
Josh is a faith and culture writer with ThinkCivics. He attended seminary through Rock of Ages Baptist Bible Institute out of Cleveland, TN. He has held about every position one could hold in a local church: Sunday school teacher, Children’s Church Preacher, Bus Ministry Director/Worker, Missions Director, Choir Director, Song Leader, Janitor, etc. In October of 2005, he was ordained as an Assistant Pastor at Rest Haven Baptist Church, and that’s where he served until God called him into the Pastorate at Enon Baptist Church in Alto, GA at the age of 32. He stepped out by faith in obedience to God’s instructions and quickly received a call from Blessed Hope Baptist Church in Free Home, GA where he now serves as Pastor. In his free time, Josh enjoys spending quality time with his wife (who is his high school sweetheart) and three children: Zoey, Ava, and Jack, as well as reading, writing, hunting, cooking, weight lifting, and martial arts.