Jacqui Salmon on White House Faith-Based Initiatives

By: Jacques Berlinerblau

June 22, 2009

This episode of Faith Complex features Washington Post reporter Jacqui Salmon on the topic of the White House Initiative on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

Faith Complex is hosted by Jacques Berlinerblau, produced by Thomas Banchoff and sponsored by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs and the Program for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University.

"What I am about to say is not going to win me new friends and U-Street Corridor tavern chums in Washington D.C. But someone needs to say it and I guess that someone is going to be me: the coverage of the Obama administration's Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships by mainstream journalists, policy analysts, and even academics has been ludicrously un-critical, the opposite of hard-hitting."

"There. I said it."

In today's interview with Washington Post reporter Jacqueline L. Salmon, I set out to ask all the questions about Obama's faith-based office that I thought should have been asked months ago. (Ms. Salmon raises the counter-possibility that reporters have said so little about the Office because the Office has done so little in the four months since its inception).

I won't get into the reasons for why the coverage has been so soft, but suffice it to say that "religion and politics" reporting is essentially a new sub-genre of American journalism. It emerged, en masse, after 2004 as more and more editors and producers realized that: 1) the so-called "values voters" may have handed the election to George W. Bush, and, 2) few of their reporters had ever spoken to an actual values voter.

During the 2008 presidential race, by contrast, every major news agency in the country had a religion beat writer (or what I like to call a "faith and values" specialist) on staff. Most of this reportage rose to the challenge of covering the most religiously inflected election in recent memory. Some of it was truly top notch.

Yet I have always noticed one recurring flaw with Faith and Values journalism, a flaw that I think has come to the fore in the months after President Obama announced his renovation and expansion of George W. Bush's Office of Faith Based Initiatives. Whereas these new reporters are generally quick and eager to cast doubts on political figures they tend to be much more slow and hesitant to apply the same skepticism to religious figures who enmesh themselves within politics.

The best critics eventually do get around to the task at hand—but I find them to be overly cautious, slow to burn. This may have to do with the premium American culture places on religious tolerance and ecumenical civility; it would, after all, be untoward for a writer to attack a religious figure or religious precept that has found its way into policy discussions. It would be inappropriate to write about a pastor as cynically as one would write about a senator.

My ideal Faith and Values specialist, anyhow, assumes that once religion barges into the public sphere it loses its nimbus of sanctity. You want to write about religion and politics? Criticize and be damned!—that's your motto.

In my interview with Ms. Salmon, we explore the similarities and differences between George W. Bush's version and the bulkier model advanced by the present administration. This model features a 25-person advisory council. Some council members are described by the administration as "secular" (in my opinion, the term only applies to recent appointee and "On Faith" contributor Welton Gaddy).

Obama's 2.0 version, as we point out, does not seem to have resolved a tiny little constitutional dilemma that plagued the Bush administration, namely that faith-based groups had the right to discriminate in their hiring practices all the while receiving federal allocations! In fact, it is my opinion that the entire endeavor is something of a neon-light blinking invitation to litigation.

From there we go on to ask if having the government make decisions about which religious groups deserve to receive federal funding (and which do not) is necessarily a prudent idea. And while we are at it we try to figure out what the actual mandate of the Office is. Payouts? Policy? Placating pro-life advocates?

This interview is much longer than the typical Faith Complex episode. We decided to lengthen the discussion because we felt these issues have been so insufficiently explored. I thank Ms. Salmon for providing such informed and well-researched commentary.

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