NEW YORK – On January 21, the day after Joe Biden’s inauguration, 50 faith organizations called on the president to restore an Obama administration White House office that would serve as a liaison between the organizations and lawmakers.
Two weeks into Biden’s term, and they haven’t yet gotten a response. Until they do, Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK, says they’re all “flailing in the dark trying to get connections with somebody in the administration.”
The Obama administration office the organizations seek to bring back is White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships that operated within the Domestic Policy Council.
The first version of the office, called the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, was created in 2001 under the Bush administration.
It was rebranded the White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative under the Trump administration. Instead of an office, the initiative was headed by an advisor out of the Office of Public Liaison that worked with the Domestic Policy Council.
In a letter to the president, the 50 organizations argue that an appropriately funded faith-based office “is critically important to facilitate fruitful partnerships with faith and civil society organizations, and to ensure that members of your administration have substantial and timely communication with the faith community.”
The signatories of the letter are members of the Washington Inter-Religious Staff Community, including NETWORK, Jubilee USA Network, Church World Service, Pax Christi USA, National Advocacy Center of Sisters of the Good Shepard, Leadership Conference of Women Religious and others across multiple faiths.
“The voice of the faith community provides an important component in the deliverance, planning and implementation of policy and can inform the writing of legislation,” the letter reads. “Engagement with the faith community enhances the work of government and enables it to be better informed on decisions to be made.”
The letter identifies health, immigration, racial justice, climate, poverty and peacemaking as key issues where faith-based organizations are important advocates and allies. It also identifies a number of “vital functions” of the office that would include playing a significant role in the country’s domestic and foreign policy, facilitating financial partnerships and connecting faith-based volunteers and leaders with national initiatives.
Martin Shupack, the associate director for public policy service for Church World Service, remembers that the director of the Obama administration iteration of the office met with the WISC network on several occasions, along with faith-based directors in different cabinet positions.
It was also a way to get letters, statements and policy positions to the White House, he said.
“The bigger picture is, I think what’s significant on the basis of that being set up and our being invited and welcomed to participate, then we did,” Shupack told Crux. “This was a remarkable institutional arrangement that signaled to us, ‘we care about you, we want to relate to you, we want to hear what you have to say, we want to work with you.’”
Shupack identified two reasons the letter was written right after inauguration. One was there were rumors that there was discussion within the Biden administration through the transition period about whether or not to have the office. The second, was they wanted to encourage something more robust than what existed for the past four years.
Campbell told Crux another reason is that from what they understand White House Office of Public Engagement director Cedric Richmond and White House Domestic Policy Council director Susan Rice will make the decision, “but they’ve never worked with the White House office, so they don’t know what it’s done in the past.”
“Their lack of experience and our need said we need to let them know,” Campbell said.
The White House did not return Crux multiple requests for comment. Campbell and Shupack said the last update they got was before Inauguration Day.
“The one piece that I heard before the inauguration, on a briefing call I was on, Cedric Richmond said that they were having some budget issues because they wanted an office of racial equity and environmental office in the White House and something was going to have to give,” Campbell said.
“The irony for us is we advocated for an office for racial equity and an environment and if we get nixed because of our advocacies, it really seems unfortunate. There’s got to be a way,” she added.
“It’s too important for our federal government’s functioning to not have good connections with the faith community,” she continued.
Both her and Shupack also reiterated that the issues outlined in the letter are pressing, so the sooner a decision is made the better.
“(The office) is critical at this time with this range of issues. We’re all as religious institutions – both in terms of Washington and our advocacy work – on the ground working with health clinics and immigrant aid offices and every one of these issues,” Shupack said. “These are areas that we are fully engaged.”
Eric LeCompte, Jubilee USA executive director, told Crux that at the end of the day what’s most important is that the Biden administration prioritizes and takes counsel from faith voices, whether that’s through an office or other means.
“Many of these issues about the economy, about foreign policy, about jobs, about poor and vulnerable people, are actually expertise housed within faith-based institutions and groups,” he said.
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg