George W. Bush’s controversial Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (OFCI) will live on under the Obama administration, but with a slightly altered handle: The President’s Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships (COFANP). More than mere semantics, this reimagined name signifies “a new commitment to strengthening the partnership between government and neighborhood community programs,” according to the Obama campaign’s position paper.
At Spiritual Politics, editor Mark Silk dissects the implications of the name change. “The Bush name implies that initiative comes from the non-profits, be they religious or otherwise; OFCI was supposed to ensure that faith-based entities were not shut out from government funding for what they wanted to do,” writes Silk, a professor of religion in public life at Trinity College. “COFANP makes the government an active participant in whatever happens–including in assessing the results.”
This new focus on partnership rekindles the issue of hiring discrimination for faith-based groups receiving federal funding. While Bush’s constitutionally dicey policy permits faith-based groups to hire only members of their own faith, the Obama plan expects religious groups to comply with federal anti-discrimination laws.
As partners with the federal government, faith-based groups will need to focus on using public funds for the public good, not to advance their spiritual agendas. The government’s role in the partnership will include judging programs based on effectiveness, and ending funding for programs that don’t work, regardless of their religious affiliation. As Silk puts it, under COFANP “programs will not be saved by faith alone; it will take works.”