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Something for Trump’s new faith-based office to do

 President Trump meets with faith leaders inside the Oval Office on May 3, 2017. Photo by Pastor Mark Burns

As any number of Democratic politicians have learned to their dismay, it’s a bad idea to ignore what comes out of the mouth of Ralph Reed, onetime executive director of the Christian Coalition and for the past decade Pooh-bah of the Faith and Freedom Coalition. I certainly try not to.

A few weeks ago, Reed was talking to CBN about President Trump’s belated reiteration of the faith office created by President George W. Bush back in 2001. I say belated because it took 15 months for the most pro-religion president in American history to get around to treading in the footsteps of Bush and, yes, Barack Obama.

“His executive order is bringing it back to the White House,” Reed said. “Barack Obama moved it over to the Department of Health and Human Services.  And if you’re not in the White House, frankly, you’re not where the action is.”

Once upon a time, when Bill Clinton was president, I had dinner with Reed in the dining room of Washington’s Mayflower Hotel. “People think I have power, ” he said with a sniff. And then, pointing across the street to the lit window of the president’s national security adviser in the White House, he said, “Sandy Berger. That’s power.” No doubt.

But actually, no. Barack Obama did not move it over to HHS. Even as he changed the name of Bush’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives to the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, he kept it in the White House, naming Joshua DuBois, the young religious affairs advisor on his 2008 campaign, as its director. I guess Ralph was misinformed.

Anyway, following Obama’s lead, Trump has changed the name again, this time to the Faith and Opportunity Initiative, now to be headed, curiously, by an Advisor. As in: “The Initiative shall be headed by an Advisor to the White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative.” Whatever.

Given the pace of Trump appointments, you will not be surprised to learn that this Advisor has not yet been named. But who needs an Advisor when the main point of the new office is to make possible a new Executive Order that does away with the Obama-era requirement that alternatives be made available to those who do not want to receive social services from a publicly funded faith-based provider? Or at least so it seemed to me.

However, according to Reed, that’s not the point at all.

“What we really are going to be doing is rallying armies of faith and compassion that are caring for the poor, the marginalized, those in prison, those who have been left behind,” he said. “The faith community has a lot to offer in that area and I commend the president for tapping into that resource.”

OK then. Up the highway from me in a poor neighborhood on the edge of downtown Springfield, Mass., South Congregational Church serves 52,000 meals a year to poor people. And that’s not the only way it cares for the poor, the marginalized, etc. During Holy Week this year, it took in Gisella Collazo and her two American-born children when she was on the point of being deported to her native Peru.

I realize that providing sanctuary to an undocumented immigrant might not be what the Faith and Opportunity Initiative is looking for from the faith community. But the good news is that on Monday Collazo received a one-year stay of removal from the country, enabling her to leave South Church and rejoin the American citizen she’s married to.

You will not be surprised to learn that Rev. Tom Gerstenlauer, the church’s pastor, is no fan of President Trump, or that he takes a rather dim view of the country’s rhetoric of concern for the least among us. “It seems that we have finally elected a pure expression of who we really are,” he said in a phone interview, “and not who we say we would like to be.”

When that Advisor gets appointed, I would urge her to get herself up to Springfield and provide some evidence that Rev. Tom is misinformed. Don’t expect me to hold my breath, however.

This story is available for republication.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service

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