Yesterday, I got to hear him talk about it in person in the Oval Office. I had the honor of being named to President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
The group includes prominent pastors like Joel Hunter, faith-based social justice giants like Jim Wallis and influential rabbis like David Saperstein. But it also includes people from secular service organizations, like Judith Vredenburgh of Big Brothers / Big Sisters. President Obama is sending a message with the membership — this Council is about how faith and other inspirations make a difference in the world, not about how people worship in their church, or whether they worship at all.
We had 30 minutes in the White House with the President yesterday. The Oval Office looks larger on TV than it does in person, but the President looks pretty much the same — that striking combination of regal figure and next-door-neighbor.
He spoke happily about his daughters and somberly about the economy. “Even if we get everything right,” he said, “people are going to be hurting these next few years.” And then he became all business.
He talked about the front-line work that so many organizations are doing to keep people fed and clothed and sheltered in America, and how much more acute the need is during an economic crisis. He talked about how many of those front-line groups are faith-based, and how we needed to do as much as possible to support each other and our fellow Americans in need right now.
This is not the time to argue between faith-based and secular, or Muslim and Christian, he emphasized. This is the time to find the common ground of compassion in all faiths and traditions, and put it into action where it is needed most.
‘Maybe some of those talented young people who can’t find jobs on Wall Street will join your efforts,’ the President said, with a twinkle in his eye.
And then he connected his domestic vision with his foreign policy goals — speaking of the importance of reaching out to the Muslim world, and making sure that our faiths are bridges for service and cooperation instead barriers of separation and resentment.
It made me think about the interview that Obama did with Al-Arabiya. The pundits who scoffed that leaders like President Ahmadinejad of Iran were not going to unclench their fists simply because President Obama asked missed the point.
Obama wasn’t speaking primarily to Ahmadinejad — he was reaching out to Iranians, especially young Iranians, and their counterparts across the Muslim world. He was saying, ‘We in America respect your faith and seek a common life together. Collectively we can be a powerful force for pluralism. Our shared values call on us to serve others and to defeat extremism.”
That’s a faith-based youth movement that can cross borders and traditions.