By William Wan and Michelle Boorstein
We thought we’d post some of our notes that we couldn’t fit into our story today, which examined Obama’s faith office and faith council and looked at some of the criticism and praise that’s been bubbling up about their work. It was really interesting story to work on and we ended up doing a ton of interviews.
Many of the 25 members of Obama’s faith advisory council made the point that it’s simply too early to judge the council’s work. The final vote on their year-long draft of recommendations has been delayed, and will be given to Obama sometime in early March. “The question of impact depends largely on what’s done with the report,” said council member Eboo Patel, director of Interfaith Youth Core and On Faith panelist. “We won’t know until the report is sent.”
One member, however, who spoke openly and a bit critically about doubts of his own on the council was former Southern Baptist Convention President Frank Page.
“It’s been my honor to work with all these folks, but to be honest it’s been a mixed experience,” Page said. “For example, I serve on the fatherhood task force. That’s pretty low-hanging fruit. Who’s not going to want more responsible fathers? But even within that, you have to leave your faith at the door in a lot of these discussions. You can’t say here’s why fathers ought to do better, this is what encouragement comes from the Bible, how being a better father is a godly, right and biblical thing to do. When you have 25 people from such a wide range, you’re virtually reduced to a neighborhood group of folk.”
“I felt the issues we do discussed were carefully chose to avoid debate and arguments,” said Page. “When the president launched his office, he talked about abortion reduction as one of his four prioritites. That was very quickly taken off the table as something we’d deal with.”
Page also said that as a conservative when he was first asked to join the council, he said he questioned whether he was being used as a token member, “Being on the task force gave me some weight to be heard, it put my voice at the table, and for that I’m thankful.” But if were asked again today, he said he would have to think equally hard before accepting.
Nathan Diament, a lobbyist for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America who sits on the council, argued that on the question of impact or influence of the council there’s no way for the White House to win. “Some would be very worried if it were the reverse, if a group of faith leaders empowered to be free agents, roaming the halls of the West Wing with carte blanche to weigh in on health care to abortion to who knows what,” Diament said. “We could have a legitimate discussion on whether this structure the best structure, was it too regimented. But this is the first time this is being done. People don’t understand that.”
(The council was split up into X task forces to address: economic recovery/poverty, interfaith dialogue, fatherhood, reforming the faith-based office, climate change, global poverty. For a complete breakdown of task forces check out this Pew Forum report)
As the council’s term nears its end, a few council members also talked about how being on the council has affected their work outside.
“Beside the council work itself, it’s helped me in my in my youth advocacy work,” said Patel. “People who didn’t used to return phone calls now do.”
Council member Joel Hunter, an influential senior pastor of the Northland Church in Florida, said being on the faith council has resulted in more interaction with the White House outside the council. “There have been chances to talk to the president,” he said. “He’s been engaged in asking for advice, to get spiritual counsel and support from some of us personally.”
(As a sidenote, in an interview with White House officials, Hunter’s name was brought up twice as an example of Obama’s consultation with religious leaders. Before the State of the Union, they said, Obama read a note of prayer sent by Hunter.)
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