WASHINGTON (BP)–Former Southern Baptist Convention President Frank Page is both concerned and encouraged as he begins service on a new panel that will advise President Barack Obama on faith-based and community issues.
Page, who completed two years as SBC president in 2008, is one of 25 people who will be serving on the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The council members will serve one-year terms. The advisers were named Feb. 5 as part of the restructured and newly named White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships under President Obama.
While acknowledging there are “very few conservatives on the council,” Page told Baptist Press he hopes the viewpoints held by him and others in that category will gain a hearing.
“I did and do have concerns,” said Page, pastor of First Baptist Church in Taylors, S.C. “I do ask Baptists to pray for me as I try to bring to the table what I believe is a conservative, biblical viewpoint.”
Page prayed and sought counsel after he was asked by Joshua DuBois, the new executive director of the faith-based office, to join the council, he said. He has received assurances the president wants him to express his views, Page said.
He said he decided if he “were at the table, I might have a voice that is heard,” Page told BP. “If I feel I am being used as a token conservative, I will resign.”
Page asked Baptists to pray he would have wisdom and boldness, as well as discernment to know if he needs to step down.
He approaches the opportunity with encouragement and hope as well, Page said.
On the same day the advisory council was named, Obama signed an executive order making some significant changes in what was established by President George W. Bush as the Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives. The order widens the revamped office’s assignment to four priorities that involve both religious and secular organizations:
— To give community groups a vital role in economic recovery and subsequently in alleviating poverty;
— To help the administration “support women and children, address teenage pregnancy and reduce the need for abortion;”
— To support “responsible fatherhood;”
— To work with the National Security Council in promoting interfaith dialogue globally.
Page is encouraged because two of those priorities — reducing abortions and solving the crisis in fatherhood — “strike close to my heart,” he said.
“My hopes are that the council will help provide direction for the president as regards the faith issue and that he will truly honor” faith-based groups and “let them be who they are” in relation to their hiring practices and service, Page said.
The president and DuBois were both especially complimentary of Bush’s establishment of the faith-based office and of its work so far, “which I thought was very appropriate and very encouraging,” Page said.
The Obama administration did not draw a clear line on the question of whether organizations can limit hiring to applicants of their specific faith while receiving federal funds to provide social services. Nor did it make clear whether religious organizations could evangelize or proselytize those it serves. The executive order specifies the office’s executive director will work through the White House counsel to gain advice from the attorney general on constitutional issues, according to the administration.
“The goal of this office will not be to favor one religious group over another — or even religious groups over secular groups,” Obama said at the National Prayer Breakfast in announcing the office earlier Feb. 5. “It will simply be to work on behalf of those organizations that want to work on behalf of communities and to do so without blurring the line that our founders wisely drew between church and state.”
During the 2008 presidential election, Obama opposed faith-based hiring and proselytization in the program.
Voices from both sides of the cultural divide expressed concerns about the new faith-based office on the day it was unveiled.
Tom McCluskey, vice president of government affairs at the pro-family, pro-life Family Research Council, told CNSNews.com, “My fear is that this money will go out to community organizers — and will these community organizers be more sympathetic with Planned Parenthood than with the Southern Baptist Convention?”
Some strict church-state separationists expressed regret at the maintenance of the faith-based office and the refusal to bar faith-based practices.
“I am very disappointed that President Obama’s faith-based program is being rolled out without barring evangelism and religious discrimination in taxpayer-funded programs,” said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, in a written release. “I would rather there be no ‘faith-based’ office. But if it exists, it must comply with long-established protections guaranteeing civil rights and civil liberties.”
Under the Bush administration, the faith-based office’s policy was to permit religious groups to hire based on faith. The Bush office focused largely on helping remove barriers to faith-based organizations competing for federal funding in the provision of social services.
DuBois, 26, a former associate pastor, served as director of religious affairs for Obama during the presidential campaign.
Though the advisory council will consist of 25 members, only 15 were named Feb. 5. In addition to Page, they are: Joel Hunter, pastor of Northland Church, Lakeland, Fla.; Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners; Richard Stearns, president of World Vision; Melissa Rogers, director of the Wake Forest School of Divinity Center for Religion and Public Affairs and former general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty; William Shaw, president of the National Baptist Convention, USA; Otis Moss, pastor emeritus of Olivet Institutional Church, Cleveland, Ohio; David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism; Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA; Vashti McKenzie, presiding bishop of the 13th district of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Knoxville, Tenn.; Eboo Patel, executive director of Interfaith Youth Corps; Judith Vredenburgh, president of Big Brothers/Big Sisters; Fred Davie, president of Public/Private Ventures; Arturo Chavez, president of the Mexican American Cultural Center, San Antonio, Texas, and Diane Baillargeon, president of Seedco.
A former White House aide who assisted in the establishment of the faith-based office under Bush is filling a new role in Washington, D.C., for Focus on the Family. Focus has named Tim Goeglein, former head of the White House Office of Public Liaison, as its vice president of external relations. Goeglein resigned his White House post last year after acknowledging plagiarism in some of his columns for the Fort Wayne (Ind.) News-Sentinel.
Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. Yvette Rattray is an intern in the Washington bureau of Baptist Press.