Joshua DuBois, Spiritual Advisor to President Obama & former Executive Director of the White House Faith-based & Neighborhood Partnerships discusses religious issues in the White House & devotionals that he sent to President Obama. November, 2013.
>> I'm Susan Collins, the Joan and Sanford Weill Dean here at the Ford School. And it is really a pleasure to see so many of you here for our event this afternoon. We are particularly honored to be hosting Joshua DuBois. Joshua is President Obama's spiritual advisor. And he recently published a book of the devotionals that he's been sending the President every day for six years. We also look forward during the presentation to hearing some of the passages from the book. Before I introduce Joshua more fully, I'd like to note that the Ford School Center for Public Policy and Diverse Societies is a co-sponsor for this event today. And I'd also like to thank one of our students, Mab Ibrahim who helped us to arrange Joshua's visit today. Thank you very much. Today's topic, The Intersection of Religious Tradition and Politics is a little different from many of the topics that we take on in our Policy Talks Lecture Series. But as a school of public policy we really would be remiss if we overlooked the impact of religious tradition on the decisions of the world's policy makers. And that's true both here and abroad as I think we all know. It is certainly of great significance to the President of the United States. And in fact, as some of you may know, our school's namesake, President Gerald R. Ford was a deeply religious person. His son Mike, who serve's the school's advisory committee is an ordained minister. And the Presidential Library, Ford Library, which is just around the corner here in Ann Arbor, houses President Ford's personal reflections. And one of the handwritten notes in that collection is entitled "What Religion Means to Me." In his note President Ford writes: My religious beliefs give me guidance and strength on a day-to-day basis. My conviction is very personal and I am most reluctant to speak or write about it publicly. Well that was written in 1979. Today, knowledge of our policy leader's spiritual and religious identities is much more in the public domain than it was at that time. And our speaker this afternoon will discuss how the current president draws inspiration from religion and how the administration navigates some of the complicated religious issues with the 21st Century White House. In addition to his role as spiritual advisor to the President, Joshua DuBois served in an official capacity at the White House as the Executive Director of the Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. He is a graduate of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and Boston University. And in 2008 he was the Religious Affairs Director of the Obama Presidential Campaign before transitioning to the White House. I'd like to remind our audience that if you have a question to pose to our speaker, please write it on one of the cards that was passed out as you came in the room. Ford School volunteers will begin collecting the cards at about 4:40. And then with help from Valenta Kabo, who is the Diversity Center's Program Director, and our Director of Graduate Career Services, Jennifer Niggemeier, two of our students, Mab Ibrahim and Luke Horner will read your questions. If you're watching online, I hope you will submit your questions using Twitter and please use the hashtag policytalks. And with that, it is my great pleasure to welcome Joshua to the podium
[ Applause ]
>> Thank you so much. Thank you so much Dean Collins for that wonderful introduction and for your leadership of this school and this community as well. It's such an honor to be with all of you this afternoon. I have to say, with a certain amount of apprehension I was raised in central Ohio by a school that you may be familiar with. And this backdrop is making me very nervous. So don't Tweet this to my friends from high school or I will never be able to go home again, okay? I think we all know what we're talking about here. I won't go any further. But I also want to acknowledge my wonderful wife Michelle who's here with us today. We've been married for exactly 78 days. And so if I have this goofy grin on my face, that's why. And my dear friend and former colleague and just a wonderful, wonderful person, Mab Ibrahim. Mab was our intern in the White House Faith-Based office and then worked for our consulting company Values Partnership. She doesn't know it, but this is actually a bit of a recruiting trip to try to convince her to come back to DC. [Audio Gap]
-- here at the Ford School. And to all of you, thank you for having me. I hope that you will be able to learn more about this book, "The President's Devotional" and our work at the intersection of faith and politics. But hopefully we'll be able to spend most of our time in dialog and questions and answers with all of you. So, you know, when I first started working for Barack Obama, I had no idea I was going to become his spiritual advisor and send him a devotional every morning. I was a preacher's kid from Nashville, Tennessee fresh out of a public policy degree myself. Mine at the Woodrow Wilson School. And I started working in his senate office in early 2005. I was a legislative correspondent, basically writing letters to constituents from Illinois, then transitioned into the 2008 Obama Campaign at the beginning of that campaign doing outreach like thousands of others around the country. But, you know, my personal faith was very important to me, separate from my professional life. My Christian walk and journey was probably the centerpiece of my life. And in my private times, I would just spend time praying for this man, this senator, who would be president. That God would protect him and that he would start every day with a sense of purpose and joy and really remember why he was doing what he was doing. In the course of one of those prayers on the campaign, just kind of by myself, I just felt a strong sense that, you know, this is a guy in Barack Obama, with a lot of different support around him. He had policy advisors. He had political support. But I wondered who was thinking about his soul. You know, who was helping him cultivate that aspect of himself separate from his formal work running for president? And I decided that I should send him an email and that I would get his email address from a friend of mine. It was Reggie Love, his body man at the time on the campaign. And I would send him an inspirational note to start his day. I had no idea if you were allowed to email senators. I had never done anything like that before. And so, you know, I wasn't sure what the response would be. But I drafted up a brief note. The first one was one the 23rd Psalm and poem that I loved by Wendell Berry called "The Faith of Wild Things." And I sent if off to him. And a few minutes passed and no response. And then a few more minutes and no response. And then I started thinking how I was going to explain to my mother that I got fired for emailing a senator. And a few minutes later he wrote me back and said: Joshua, I don't know how you thought of this, but this is exactly what I needed this morning. Would you mind doing it every day? And six years I've been sending him these notes every single morning. Now in addition to that sort of personal work, separate from my job, I transitioned into the White House and I led the White House Faith-Based Office. My job was to help the Obama Administration partner with religious groups and secular non-profit organizations all around the country on a range of public policy and social service concerns, from setting up job training programs at thousands of congregations to helping feed the hungry through food pantries at local congregations to navigating the contours of religion in foreign affairs. And so I won't go into a lot of that work today, but I would encourage you to ask me anything about that work leading the White House Faith-Based Office. But separate from that, every single morning I would send him these devotionals, devotionals that sought to give the President a sense of purpose, a sense of joy, help him navigate how to love his neighbors, even those who are very difficult do love, which is a constant theme in Washington. And you know, about a little over a year ago, I decided and I talked to the President and decided that if these meditations have been helpful to him. And he said that they meant the world to him, including on the cover the book, which I'm so honored by, if they've been helpful to him, then maybe they'll be helpful to other people as well. So I'd love to share a few of them with you. In addition to that, there are 365 devotionals in the President's Devotional, but each month also begins with a story about a lesson that I've learned at the intersection of faith and politics in the White House. And I'll share a few of those stories as well, if that's okay. And then we'll move into a period of Q and A after that. So, you mind if I do a little reading?
I'm going to grab a stool. Seems so far away from you guys behind this thing. All right. You know, one of the constant themes that we would focus on is the theme of prayer. How the President could, in the context of a very difficult life and the challenges that he faces every single day have a robust prayer life, meaning communication with God and having a dialog on principles that are much bigger than politics. And so I'll read a devotional that kind of focused on that theme. And again, I should note, and I'd love to talk about church-state issues and other things as well in the Q and A period. These were all done on my personal time before I got to work in the morning. And so it's kind of just a personal service that I provided for the President. But this one is from November 15th. It's called "Just Me and You." It starts off with a verse from the Book of Matthew. One other quick note, the President's a Christian and so many of the devotionals -- all the devotionals are meant to help him cultivate his own personal religious journey. That said, I think a lot of the principles here are accessible to people of all different faiths and backgrounds and beliefs. So again, this is November 15th, "It's Just me and You." First Matthew 6:6. When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your father who is in secret. And your father who sees in secret will reward you. Then a reflection. When Bill Moyers served as President Lyndon Baines Johnson's press secretary, he was famous for being a calming presence in the face of larger-than-life LBJ. One day at lunch, Moyers was in the middle of saying grace before their meal. And Johnson exclaimed to him: Speak up Bill. I can't hear a damn thing you're saying. Moyers quietly replied: That's because I wasn't addressing you, Mr. President. Moyers knew that prayer is a conversation between us and God. Nothing more and nothing less. The God of this universe wants to talk with us and hear our troubles and guide our steps. Let's take advantage of that wonderful opportunity and spend time communing today with Him. And closes with a prayer. Dear God, I appreciate the opportunity to be in conversation with you. I bring to you my praise and confessions and requests and thoughts. It's just me and you. Amen. So that's an example of one of the devotionals about prayer. Another regular theme was how to process all of the sort of antipathy and ill-will that is a constant presence in Washington. How to navigate that, not just from a practical perspective, but from a spiritual perspective. When people don't just disagree with your policies, but sometimes really just dislike you. You know, how do you work through that? And that was a theme that I would regularly come back to. And so here's another devotional on that point. It's from February 22nd. It's called forgiving the pain.
It starts off with a verse First John. If anyone says I love God and hates his brother he is a liar. For he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. Then a quote. I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain. That's James Baldwin, Notes of Native Son. It concludes with a prayer. Lord, if we have any intense feeling, even hatred, for any of your creatures, we pray for its release and search our emotions and root out any ill will. We have reasons, good reasons, for certain antipathies. But today we make an effort to forgive. And once we have forgiven, we ask you to help us deal with any underlying pain. Amen. And so that's one of the devotionals on that subject of really processing the hatred that's sometimes sent our way. The last example I'll read -- actually, I'm not going to do that one. I'll do another one. One of the last themes that I focused on a lot was really how to have joy. The President's a very serious guy and he obviously deals with very serious issues. And so I'd often come back to how even in the context of those thorny and weighty challenges that he and we faced every day he could still some time to laugh and smile and even dance. And that's what this one's about. And it's on January 6th. It's called "He Danced." It starts off with a quote. Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free, silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands with all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves, let me forget about today until tomorrow. That's Bob Dylan, "Mr. Tambourine Man." Then a verse of scripture. Wearing a linen ephod David was dancing before the Lord with all his might. Then it concludes with a reflection. David the king, the rule of the nation of Israel, the man on whom the mantel of God rested and from whose lineage would emerge Jesus. David, in wild abandon danced. He danced because the Lord had been good. He danced because despite unspeakable trials he was still alive. He danced because it gave glory and honor to the God who had formed him. He danced because the weight of sin had been lifted off of him. He danced and danced and then he danced some more with all he had, with all his might. Let's pray for some of that joyful abandon today. Let's seek out the moments when the seriousness of life melts away in the heat of God's glory and we are free to let loose, shout, glorify God and dance. So I don't know if the President actually danced when he read that devotional, but hoping that it helped him brighten his day just a little bit. So as I said, in addition to the devotionals each month, and this book begins with a lesson that I learned in the White House. Some are on lighter subject matters like how the President encouraged Michelle and I down the path towards marriage or how he navigated the relationship with some wonderful seniors that he worked with and some other subjects as well. But some are, you know, on some public policy issues that were somewhat difficult to navigate. And I'm going to read one of the ones. This is one of the essays that was probably the most difficult, actually the second most difficult for me to write. I'll read another one at the end. But this one was about a disagreement that we had in the White House on a very important policy issue, the navigation of the intersection of religious liberty and the right of women to have contraception paid for by their employer. And sort of, it doesn't focus as much on the policy but rather the moral lesson that I learned in the context of that debate. And so I'll read this for you. It's from July. It's called "On Disagreement." It's a little bit of a longer essay. So what do you when you disagree with your boss and your boss's boss and maybe even the President of the United States? That's where I found myself in the fall and winter of 2011 on one of the most important challenges of our day, religious liberty and a historic conflict with the Catholic Church. The issue was fairly clear. President Obama's Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obama Care, as you all know, made preventative services including contraception free for millions of American women paid for by their employers, which I thought was a very good thing. But the unresolved question before President Obama in late 2011 and early 2012 was whether employers that objected to contraception on religious grounds, say for example the Catholic Church, would have to pay for it as well? Faith-based organizations like the US Conference of Catholic Bishops were on one side of the debate and women's rights groups like NARAL and Planned Parenthood were on the other. And in the White House, opinions fell roughly along the same fault lines. On one side I stood with two very senior officials who were closely connected to the church and had grown up sitting in pews. In our opinion, it was blindingly obvious that government just can't force religious organizations to pay for things they don't believe in. I also believed that President Obama's decision on this issue would send a broader signal about religious liberty in our country and permanently shape his relationship with faith-based groups.
In my view, there had to be another way to make sure that women had access to contraception without infringing on the rights of the church. On the other side of the issue were several White House and agency officials, also much more senior than I, most of whom had deep histories with the women's advocacy community. In their view -- well for months, I didn't understand their view at all, actually. I knew their opinions had to do with women's access to contraception regardless of where they worked, but to me, it didn't add up. Their inability to make this relatively small concession to religious organizations seemed to me to be unreasonable at best, and worst, destructive. For months the two sides battled it out in large staff meetings and small group discussions and private emails. The Catholic bishops, women's groups and US Congressmen and Senators were feverishly lobbying the President as well, which didn't help a bit. On several occasions, particularly the large group meetings we would have in the Roosevelt Room, that imposing wood-line conference room in the White House's West Wing, I felt like I was the only voice advocating for religious liberty, while other staff, years my senior and far more persuasive were lined up on the other side. Every time I had to address the issue, I had the sensation of a very small man about to jump off a very high cliff. And then the big day came. The day President Obama would announce his decision. I was up all night the night before with a knot in my stomach in fervent prayer. The next morning, a sunny one, unseasonably warm for a January day, I walked into my office on Jackson Place, a row of townhouses directly across from the White House and made a few calls to West Wing staff to see if there was an update on the President's decision. Strangely, I couldn't get through to anyone. I waited a few hours and then called again. No answer. I decided to go for a walk around the West Wing and the Eisenhower Building where many of the President's staff offices are to see if I could find someone. But no one was available to see me. I returned to my desk and I saw the voicemail indicator flashing on my phone. Finally some news. I checked the message and it was a polite voicemail from one of our senior staff asking me to give her a call back. However, at the end of the voicemail she thought she had hung up the phone, but the line was still active. I could hear her say to her assistant: I just called Joshua back. But I don't really want to talk with him. At this point there's nothing left to say. If he calls back, take a message.
[ Laughter ]
So, as you might imagine, my heart dropped and slumped into my chair. That was it. I had my answer. I didn't need to hear it formally. The President had clearly decided to not exempt religious groups from the requirement to buy contraception. This was, in my opinion, a historic breach of relationship with the church, much bigger than this particular issue. But it also meant I had failed. I felt a wave of shame and regret. Perhaps if I had fought harder or taken a different approach the religious community would have been better protected and the President better served. But mostly, I was angry, very angry. They manipulated him, I thought, believing that staffer on the other side of the issue had unfairly used outside voices to lobby the President. How could they not understand how important this is? They never wanted the right result, I thought. They just wanted to win. I was sick to my stomach the rest of the afternoon and evening and into the next day. The public reaction was as I anticipated. The religious community was livid and all I could do was watch. As the calls poured in from friends and allies, my anger burned hotter. And eventually I had enough. I marched into the office of one of the most senior staffers in the White House, a neutral party on this issue, and I let it rip. How could they, I said. Their arguments were so specious, dishonest, I continued. Don't they know what this will do to the President, to the country? I didn't hold anything back. And then I settled back into my chair and stared at him with daggers in my eyes. The recipient of my wrath, a Washington veteran with many more battles under his belt than I, took it in calmly, even empathetically. But his reply still rings in my ears to this day. He said: Joshua, I understand why you're upset. It's a huge issue. But I need you to know that as passionately as you feel right now, as angry as you are, as hurt as you feel on behalf of the people you serve, there are people on the other side who feel just as passionately and would have been just as angry and just as hurt. For you, he continued, faith is a big part of your context. It's the space in which you work and live. But other people have other contexts. I know some in this building, he said, people who I've known for 20 years for whom the protection of women's rights is as deep in their marrow as religious liberty is in yours. For them it's unthinkable, I mean really unthinkable, that even one woman would have unequal access to medical care. He concluded, you can question policy decisions, Joshua, you can disagree with people even vehemently, but you should be very, very careful before you question other's motives. Not only is it not fair, but in this case, I truly believe your attacks on them are wrong. They do care about the President and they care about the country. They just ended up in a different place on this issue. How would you feel if someone said behind your back that you really didn't care for the President or the religious community and you just wanted to win? Would that be accurate? Would it be right? I sat there, my temperature still high and my hands still shaking, but fighting a new reality that was beginning to settle in. A reality where I felt just as passionately about religious liberty and was just as confident in my view, but where my opponents weren't evil or dishonest, just in sincere, passionate disagreement with me. And I started to realize that in this country, that's a place they're allowed to be. The issue did not go away. And in fact the President made some significant adjustments to the contraception policy. Eventually, I believe we moved towards a place where both religious liberty and the rights of women were protected. But for me there was an even larger point. The book of Proverbs, Chapter 21, Verse 2 tells us: Every way of a man is right in his own eyes. But the Lord weighs the heart. The Lord weighs the heart. Not me, not anybody else but God. And until the time when I can ask him face to face about someone else's motives, I have no business questioning them myself. My job was to fight as hard as I can and as fair as I can. And in the meantime, to love every person I come into contact with and let God work out the rest. And so that was the story on religious liberty. The last one that I will read before one concluding devotional, that was probably the most -- one of the more challenging policy issues that we tackled. But the next one was probably the most difficult personal issue I addressed in the White House. And it was also one of those times where I really got to see who this man, President Obama really is. Oftentimes we sort of see him as an avatar, some figure on our television screen that we don't really truly know. But this was one of those moments, one of the worst days I've had, but one of those times where I really got to see the President's character. And I'll conclude with this. It's from May. It's called "Done in Secret." It's about the time that I travelled with President Obama to Newtown after the horrible tragedy there.
The White House is not supposed to be a place for brokenness, sheer shattered brokenness. But that's what we experienced on the weekend of December 14, 2012. I was sitting at my desk around mid-day on Friday the 14th when I saw the images flash on CNN. There was a school, a gunman, and children fleeing and crying. It's sad that we've grown so accustomed to these types of scenes that my first thought was I hope there are no deaths, just injuries. I thought maybe it's just your run-of-the-mill scare. And then the news from Sandy Hook Elementary School, a small school in the tiny hamlet of Newtown, Connecticut began pouring in. The public details were horrific enough, 20 children murdered and six staff, parents searching a gymnasium for signs of their kids. But the private facts that we received in the White House from the FBI were even worse. And I won't go into them now. That news began a weekend of prayer and numbness, which I awoke from on Saturday only to receive word that the President would like me to accompany him to Newtown. He wanted to meet with the families of the victims and then offer words of comfort to the country at an interfaith memorial service. I left early to help the advance team, the hardworking folks who handle logistics for every event, set things up. And I arrived at the local high school where the meetings and memorial service would take place. We prepared seven or eight classrooms for the families of the slain children and teachers, put two or three families in every classroom and put water and tissues and snacks in each one. Honestly, we didn't know how to prepare, but that was the best we could think of. The families came in and gathered together room by room. Many struggled to offer a weak smile when we whispered: The president will be here soon. A few of them were visibly angry. So understandable that it barely needs to be said. And they were looking for someone, anyone, to blame. But mostly they sat in silence. I went downstairs to greet President Obama when he arrived and I provided an overview of the situation. I would say: Sir, there are two families per classroom and the first is -- and I would say that family's name. And their child was -- and I would say that child's name. And the second is -- and their child was. And I would go on down the line. The President took a deep breath and steeled himself and went into the first classroom. And what happened next I'll never forget. Person after person received an engulfing hug from our Commander in Chief. He'd say: Tell me about your son. Tell me about your daughter. Then he hold up those school pictures of the lost beloved as their parents described their favorite food and their television shows that they watched and the sound of their laughter. For the younger siblings of those who had passed away, many of them were two or three years old. They didn't really understand what was going on, the President would grab them and toss them up into the air and try to get them to laugh and then hand them a box of White House M&Ms which he kept in his pocket. In each room I saw his eyes water but he did not break. And then, and this was the crazy thing, the entire scene would repeat itself again for what felt like hours, over and over again through well over a hundred relatives of the fallen. Each one equally broken and wrecked by the loss. After each classroom, we would go back into those fluorescent hallways and walk through the names of the coming families. And then the President would dive back in like a soldier returning to a tour of duty in a worthy but wearing war. We spent what felt like a lifetime in those classrooms and every single person received the same tender treatment, the same hugs, the same looks directly in their eyes. I remember worrying about the toll it was taking on him. You know, the staff did all the preparation, but the comfort and healing were all on President Obama. And of course, even a President's comfort was woefully inadequate for these families in the face of this particularly unspeakable loss. But it became some small measure of love on a weekend when evil reigned. And the funny thing is, President Obama has never spoken about these meetings. Yes, he addressed the shooting in Newtown and gun violence in general in a subsequent speech. But he did not speak about those private gatherings. In fact, he was nearly silent on Air Force One as we rode back to Washington and has said very little about his time with those families since. It must have been one of the defining moments of his presidency, quiet hours in solemn classrooms extending as much healing as was in his power to extend. But he kept it to himself, never seeking to teach a lesson based on those mournful conversations or opening them up to public view. Jesus teaches us that some things, the holiest things, the most painful and important and cherished things we are to do in secret. Not for public consumption or display, but as acts of service to each other and worship to God. For then, scripture tells us, your father who sees what is done in secret will reward you, perhaps not now, but certainly in eternity. I learned many lessons in Newtown that day. That's one I've kept closely at heart. So that's the story of a very difficult day, but also something that I learned as well. So that's, I think a little bit of what you will see in "The President's Devotional." I think there's inspiration the President has mined to start his day, also some stories that illuminate a different side of our White House and this town, Washington, that our national leaders live in that we often don't get to see. But to some extent, and this is specifically for the students here, I think another thing that I hope you'll get out of the book is that it's a bit of a testament to what happens when we shout down all the sort of doubts and insecurities and, you know, hesitation that we have in our mind and step out there and do something new. You know, I was a kid in my mid-20s from Nashville, Tennessee who had no business walking around the West Wing of the White House, but I decided to go for it. When I saw an opening, I decided to shoot an email. I wasn't qualified. I wasn't a pastor of some major church. I went to policy school, not seminary, you know? But I think there was a plan for me and I decided to run toward it. I think the exact same thing can be the case for so many of you, gaining such tremendous skills in this school. You're going to walk out of here prepared to tackle the world. But the one additional quality you'll need is boldness. Boldness to run toward new opportunities when you see them. And I hope you'll do that, and I'm confident that you will. So thank you all. God bless you.
[ Applause ]
So I'd love to open up to some questions if you don't mind. When you ask a question, if you wouldn't mind -- oh, I'm sorry. There's a process here I'm about to violate. [Laughs] Hey Mab.
>> Hi, hello. All right. Can you hear me?
>> There we go.
>> Great. Hi, my name is Mab Ibrahim. Thank you so much for being with us. We're really glad that you're here to share some insight on both President Obama's faith walk and also your experiences at the White House Office for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. I'm a first year student and we will start with a question from our audience. This person asks: So the President only speaks on his faith rarely to the public. What do you believe the role of a politician's faith should be in elections and in service? What do voters deserve to know about a politician's faith?
>> Wonderful. Sorry, I like to be a little bit more personal. Who asked that so I can just say hello. Hey there. What's your name?
>> I'm Jake.
>> Hey Jake. Nice to meet -- Jake, you said?
>> Jake. Great to meet you. And a great question. What should be the role of a politician's faith in terms of his or her public service? I think the most important thing is that our elected officials are authentic to who they are. You know, I think we all have a set of values and beliefs. For some of us that's a set of religious values. Others, it may come from a different context, the way we were raised, our sense of fairness in the world. And I think every elected official needs to talk about where their values are from. But not everyone should feel as if they have to communicate that in the language of religion or theology or religious doctrine. In fact, when people do that and that's not real for them it comes off sounding so inauthentic and contrived. And I think it's not good for them politically and not good for the country as well. That said, I should commend to you a speech that President Obama, when he was a senator, gave on this very topic. It's a little-known speech. No one's read it. But it's one of my favorite addresses that he's ever delivered. It was a speech he gave in 2006 called "Call to Renewal." He delivered it at a conference. Just Google Obama Call to Renewal. And he talks about how public officials should navigate the values in the public square. And the main thing is to be authentic. You know, if you're a person of strong religious faith, you should not shy away from that. In fact, in the Democratic Party, I happen to be a Democrat, some people feel as if they can't talk about their values or that they should not. And I think that's absolutely wrong. At the same time, I think we should be very careful to not misuse our faith for explicitly political gain. And so I think, you know, sometimes my friends on the other side of the aisle appear to use their faith in a way that seems more about politics and less about religion. And so I think the main thing is to be authentic. Be who you are. And I think both voters -- the voters will reward folks for that and I also think it's better for our country as well. Yes.
>> Thank you again -- oh, it's not.
>> There we go.
>> Thank you again for being here.
>> My pleasure.
>> I'm the coordinator. I just have another question from the audience kind of following up on that last question. President Obama has often evoked religious imagery in his public addresses -- It's not on. Here we go. Sorry about that. It's much better. President Obama has often invoked religious imagery in his pubic addresses. Where do you think the line is between civic religion, his civic religion of largely Christian imagery and support for religious pluralism and tolerance in the United States?
>> That's a great question. Who asked that so I can say hi. Sorry. Religious imagery. It's a great question. I just want to acknowledge you for it. It's okay. Remain anonymous. I would say it gets back to the authentic answer that, you know, for the present he happens to be a Christian. And I think it's okay for him to talk about his own background in a way that falls short of imposing that background on others or implying that anyone else's background is any less valuable and worthy. I think one very clear line, and it's not directly related to your question, is obviously the separation of church and state where the most important principle is that religious dollars, taxpayer money, can't go towards religious, explicitly religious uses. And so that's one line that's out there. I do think, and the president has been careful about this, that we have to acknowledge America's increasing and growing religious diversity. And he's talked about, you know, that we're a nation of Christians and Muslims and Hindus and Jews and believers and non-believers alike. And I think that's very important to acknowledge. The President expanded outreach to the faith community and the White House through the White House Faith-Based Office. We worked with a range of organizations through 13 federal agencies and lots of different programs. We did events that engaged the Christian community, but we also held an interfaith Iftar and a Passover Seder and the first ever White House event for the Sikh community and the Hindu community as well. And so I think, you know, in this increasingly diverse society, people have to know that no matter who they are and where they come from, this is a government that works for them.
>> So this person asks how as a politician one might reconcile tension between their own values and beliefs and the values of the greater United States? And they point out that the US might have Christian values, but of course, there is room for debate. And how does one keep from just advocating their own beliefs?
>> That's a great question. I think, my personal belief, and the President as a senator spoke to this directly in the "Call to Renewal" speech is that we should be clear about our values in the public square and we should talk about them and talk about why we're motivated to do the things that we do. But when it comes to advocating for particular policies and particular pieces of legislation, regulatory moves or whatever the case may be, we have to do so in a language that's accessible to all people, whether or not they share our faith. And so I cannot say that -- I can say that my values incline me to support immigration reform and welcoming the strangers in the language of the Bible. But I can't say that other people should support this policy because I'm a Christian and because it aligns with Christian values. I have to explain why from a dispassionate policy perspective why others should align with my beliefs. And so I think it's the difference between talking about who you are and where you come from and where you values are and advocating for particular policies and legislation. I think the latter has to be done in a non-sectarian manner.
>> With much of the Administration's foreign policy focusing largely on Muslim countries, how would you say this religious difference informs the President's foreign policy agenda?
>> That's a great question. Hi. Who asked that? I'm going to try this again. Religion and foreign policy. Don't be shy. That's okay. All right. That's the last time I'll ask. [Laughs].
I think this president has -- and I'm just going to say through the Faith-Based Office, has made great strides at the intersection of religion and foreign affairs. The reality is religious leaders and actors around the globe are central players when it comes to development and when it comes to peace building and diplomacy. Yet, for far too long, the United States government has had no real infrastructure to engage religious leaders and religious organizations around the globe that are various diplomatic posts, our embassies and through our Foreign Service staff. We, for the first time, created something called the Interagency Working Group of Religion and Global Affairs where we surveyed every single post around the world to figure out how they were navigating issues of religion. And then we started working with the State Department to build their capacity to work with religion around the world. I'm pleased to say that just over the last few months the State Department has actually hired a full-time person, a guy named Shaun Casey, to lead a new office on religious engagement at the State Department to go along with the existing office on international religious freedom. That's a very big deal. And it's just that it's a very practical concern. You know, if you're doing maternal and child health in Bangladesh, there's no way to implement effective programs without the agreement of the Imams there in the country. You have to work with them if you're going to be effective. If you're going to do anti-malaria work in Nigeria, you have to work with the Catholic bishops and the Muslim community there as well. And if your foreign service staff, if the people that are working on behalf of the United States government around the world don't know how to do that, if they're not trained for that, if they don't have capacity, then we are forsaking a significant set of potential partnerships. And so I think that's -- and still, we still have to be very careful about church-state issues. We still have to make sure we're aware of what we're funding and how. But it's absolutely essential that we build the capacity of the United States government in that space.
>> So what role can religion play in reinventing Detroit?
>> That's a great question. What role can religion play in Detroit? Well, I would say faith-based organizations can be a central part of turning around Detroit. And I think some of that work is already underway. I would say, and I talked about this with your Dean earlier, it's important to layer on top of religious outreach faith-based engagement as well as any other social service program rigorous program evaluation and really making sure that whenever you're supporting an organization and you're working with a non-profit or any social service entity that the stuff they're doing works and that it's measureable and that you can really quantify the social change. And I think one of the distinctions between the previous iterations of the faith-based initiative and the work that we try to do in the White House is that we were very serious about measurement. And I have to credit my econ, stats and program evaluation courses in policy school for that. So the work you're doing matters. It really, really does. You will come back to that analytical framework time and time again. And so I certainly did in my time in the White House. All right [Laughs].
>> This question follows up a little bit on that. Is the church effective at social service provision if religion must be kept separate from service delivery as dictated by charitable choice? And isn't part of the strength of faith-based organizations the actual faith part? What do you envision is the role of faith-based organizations in social service delivery to the poor?
>> That's a great question. The answer is going to be not cut and dry. There are effective faith-based organizations that separate their religious work from their non-sectarian work. That does exist. Lutheran Services in America, Catholic Charities and others. Oftentimes they are running federally-funded programs separate from their more religious aspects of their work. And many of those programs are effective. Others are not. Should faith-based organizations be able to operate programs in this country motivated by their religion? Absolutely. The issue is, they can't -- if it's explicitly religious, they can't receive taxpayer dollars. And that's for very, very good reasons. One is that if you're receiving taxpayer money for a program that's related and fused with religion, then you are accountable to the government for your religious activity. You have to -- you could be audited for your worship and you have the government in the mix of your religiously-related programs. And that's a very scary thing. That's not anything that any of us want. I also think that we have to remember that we are a religiously diverse country. There are some folks from religious minorities that may not want their taxpayer dollars going for a particular purpose. There are folks from religious majorities that my not want their taxpayer dollars going towards a particular religious organization. And we have to be very careful about that. The last thing I would say, it's not Charitable Choice that brought this about, it's the First Amendment. I mean it's a very clear, you know, Constitutional concern that we may not establish religion through our government. And I think it's an important one and one that serves the church as well as it does religion. You know, the first people advocating for religious separation were not sort of secular church-state activists, it was Baptists getting happy in the fields in New England and not wanting the federal government to be involved in their religious activity. And that's very important to remember. Yes. Any questions -- oh, sorry. You ask.
>> So often religion is cited as a source of division, but as President Obama has often alluded his faith and the power of his faith, -- hello ---
How does his faith inform his policies and how can use this belief in faith to bring consensus among those who often oppose his actions?
>> Sure, you know, I don't want to put words in the President's mouth. I will say -- I would point folks to some speeches that he's given at the National Prayer Breakfast every year where he really explicitly talks about and has for years how his faith is connected to his public service. I think his faith grounds him in a sense of justice, in a sense of fairness for all people. I think his faith is closely related to his family in a sense that, you know, we have a real responsibility to our families. And so it's related to his life as a good husband and a good father. You could tell it's another way that he sees his faith manifested. And you know, I would also say that the President, because of his work as an organizer is really grounded in the power of faith-based organizations to bring about change in neighborhoods. You know, a lot of folks know that he was organizing on the south side of Chicago. Well, what's not as well known is that he was working explicitly with churches through a campaign funded by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the Developing Communities Project. He was working with pastors to turn around neighborhoods that had been devastated by steel mill closings. And so he saw from a very early age that when congregations get involved in community redevelopment, they can have a significant impact. And so I think that's followed him over the years as well.
>> Can you talk a little bit about any partisan issues that you have witnessed that have taken on strong religious undertones or overtones and how you reconcile your political ideology with your faith?
>> Sure. Well I definitely address the biggest one in the religious liberty essay that's in the book. And so there are others in the book that you may want to check out as well. You know, I would say -- I mean, one contemporary one is the debate over SNAP, food assistance, the Supplemental Nutrition Program, the food stamps program. I think I'm very heartened by the number of religious organizations including conservative religious organizations that are mobilizing to try to do something about the cuts to SNAP. It's a very -- completely misunderstood program. People think food stamps, this creates dependency and that it's, you know, being misused. It has among the lowest fraud rates of federal programs. And around 80 percent of food stamp programs go towards households with children, senior citizens and the disabled. For those that are more working households, it is far more often than not a bridge towards getting back to work, spending less of your monthly income on food so that you can spend it on job training and improving yourself and then getting back into the workforce. It's really a ladder up and out of poverty rather than something else. And faith-based organizations are mobilizing on SNAP even now. I'm hoping that they'll be able to turn it around. And so that's one thing.
>> How are you able to liaison between the Pentecostal community and its varied racial, ethnic and linguistic forms and how is the President and his administration able to do this? And how much of a religion 101 did you have to give to President Obama's staff?
>> That's a great question. Well, the President is very sort of religiously knowledgeable. You know, he's a committed Christian himself but has engaged diverse religious groups over the course of his career. You know, we do religion 101 with, you know, lots of different folks, not just White House staff. You know, in an increasingly secular country, there's less of a knowledge of sort of the contours of religion. So we did that a fair amount. I would say, you know, religion reporters are also doing that every single day. Hi Niraj, by the way. Doing great work. That's the religion reporter from the Detroit Free Press back there. So people should catch up with him, too. And so, you know, I think we spend a fair amount of time sort of closing the information gap between, you know, where most people are now and you know, religious groups. So we did a lot of work on that front. In terms of direct - I mean, we worked with Pentecostal denominations but there was no particular outreach effort there, just as a part of our engagement of a range of organizations.
>> How are your devotionals chosen? Random thoughts or specific topics requested? And how do you ensure you're not promoting a political agenda?
>> [Laughs]. Well, you know, I've been very careful to not try to pick devotionals that immediately reflect whatever's happening in the news cycle or political crisis. I didn't want it to feel like the President was reading his news clips in the morning when he got an email from me. And so I try to focus on more internal principles. The President's a history buff and a music fan, a jazz fan in particular. And so I often wove together, wove in history to make a point with scripture and music as well. So there's devotionals about Nina Simone and Johnny Cash and you heard one from Bob Dylan, a quote from him and many others, too. And so lots of different sources.
>> So what do you believe are the greatest accomplishments of the Faith-Based Neighborhood Partnerships Office and what were some of your greatest challenges?
>> Great question. So I think our single biggest accomplishment was a structural one. We created a whole new set of programs where the faith-based organizations could work with the government outside of federal grants alone. The previous administration largely focused on leveling the playing field so that groups could compete for federal resources. And that's important. We kept the playing field level, but I think far too many organizations out there saw the federal government as only an entity that they should receive funding from rather than an institution that they could work with to solve big challenges separate from federal funding. And so we created a whole new set of programs that we called civic partnerships that were non-financial in nature. And that seems subtle but a significant shift from just seeing the relationship between religion and government as one based in money and rather than as one focused on resolving real challenges in the world. Some of the programs that we're particularly proud of, our Job Clubs program. We helped thousands of congregations around the country set up employment ministries, places where unemployed folks could come in and get resume assistance and network with local employers, but also receive sort of spiritual and emotional support when they're going through the tough time of unemployment. We didn't fund that. We just gave technical assistance to set these up. And we convened people together and we started this effort that grew around the country. So we're very proud of that. We also kicked off something called the President's Interfaith Campus Challenge around interfaith service. And this was and still is, it's still ongoing, a wonderful effort to get diverse religious student groups to come together on hundreds of college campuses in year-long service projects. So, you know, at a given campus Halal working with Intervarsity Christian Fellowship and the Muslim Student's Alliance and the Secular Student's group on a year-long service project. We found that interfaith service, where you're actually doing things together is oftentimes more effective in reducing tensions than interfaith dialog where you're talking about stuff. And we launched this program at college campuses around the country and it's been an extraordinary success with, I think, reduced tensions, real programs impacting real people through service and real friendships being formed across religious lines. We also kicked off the work on religion and global affairs, which I think will have ripple effects decades from now. And so we're very excited about that, too. So, there's a few things.
>> I have a question here from Twitter.
>> Oh wow.
>> Can you speak to the idea and practice of politicians tempering their faith so that it is more palatable or acceptable?
>> Great question. You know, I'm trying to think if I know politicians that -- well, yeah, particularly on the Democratic side. There are some folks who feel like they are, you know, people of strong faith but are not as comfortable on sort of talking about their values in the public square. I wrote a cover story for Newsweek called "The Secret Faith of Washington" where I profiled a few of these wonderful people that many folks don't know that they're people of strong faith and values. But I wanted to sort of bring that out into the light. One of them is a senator from Minnesota, Amy Klobushar who is both a wonderful public official but also is a person of very strong faith. And it's just not someone that most people would know. So I do think we have more work to do. And again, I know this is a politically diverse audience, as a Democrat I would say that we have more work to do in creating spaces for people of faith to feel comfortable about talking about their values and their beliefs in a way that is not, you know, frowned upon and so forth.
>> So this member of our audience is wondering if you have any strategies for us as policy makers and future policy makers on working on faith-based public policy issues?
>> That's a great question. I would say the closer you can get to the ground, to the action, the better. I'm a huge fan of working at state governments and local governments on non-profit engagement and faith-based outreach and really seeing what types of programs work right in front of your face rather than at the 30,000 foot level that we were often at in the White House. And so to the extent that you can get that type of experience, I think it's wonderful to do. And I would also say, and again, just getting back to the, you know -- no matter what organization you're working with, different causes will pull at your heartstrings and just sound wonderful, but you have to make sure that you know with certainty, or as much certainty as you can, that it works, you know, that the programs are effective at moving the needle on issues of concern. Because whether in a mayor's office or a governor's office or in a non-profit or are working in the White House, you're going to have limited resources and they're going to have to go one place or another. And you're going to have to make decisions on whether -- and where you make an investment, you won't be able to make it in another place. And so you have to know with as much certainty as possible that where you're expending your resources is going to actually have a measurable impact on people's lives. And so I think that's the one important principle to think about no matter where you work.
>> You've done a lot of work on issues concerning black men in America. What do you believe the administration's policy is on creating a national conversation about race?
>> Great question. Yes, so the context here is I ran the President's Fatherhood and Mentoring Initiative along with my friend Michael Strautmanis for a number of years helping to engage absent fathers and help them reconnect with their families. I also wrote a story, a cover story of Newsweek called "The Fight for Black Men" that sort of started a conversation in this space. You know, the Administration doesn't have a policy on a national conversation on race largely because I, the President, and I think others are skeptical about, you know, things that begin with conversation, I think. You know, I'm not sure where one would have such a conversation and like how it would go down. I think it's much more important to actually do stuff and to practically create programs and opportunities for a greater level of engagement with communities that are falling behind and create practical opportunities for people to connect across these lines of division. So to that end, the President has kicked off a major initiative on fatherhood, as I mentioned, and supporting organizations around the country for helping dads reconnect with their families. After the Trayvon Martin verdict, the President gave, I think, a very eloquent speech, impromptu speech in the White House Press Room where he talked about the work that we need to do in this very space and then has followed that up with concrete action working with foundations and others to support programs that bridge these racial divides. And so, you know, I would say I am personally, I can't speak for the President, but I'm personally skeptical of the importance of a national conversation on race. Oftentimes the folks that come to those conversations are the ones that are already engaged. And I think it's far more important in smaller ways around the country for people to have a million local conversations and to support programs that actually bring people together.
>> This asks if you can speak to the faith community's mobilization on human trafficking and your work under the faith-based [inaudible] partnership.
>> Did you write that Mab? Mab works on trafficking issues and did for us in the White House. I think this is a phenomenal example of interfaith cooperation and engagement on one of the most important issues I think that we're facing as a country. Lots of groups are coming together from the folks at Passion, Evangelical Student Movement to the Islamic Society of North America to the Jewish Council of Public Affairs and secular or non-sectarian organizations like United Way and are forming a coalition of faith groups and non-profits to finally impact human trafficking. The President, President Obama had a faith-based advisory council that looked at this issue specifically. And my friend and colleague Mara Vanderslice put together this interfaith coalition on human trafficking. It still functions to this day. So it's a very rich area of interfaith cooperation.
>> Do you think your background, as not being a minister at a major church helped your work connecting policy and faith in our religiously diverse country?
>> Yeah, I'm going to say I'm not sure. I think, you know, I certainly I think I could approach a range of religious leaders with a full measure of humility trying to learn from them rather than thinking that I knew more than them. So maybe that was helpful. But yeah, I think the honest answer is I don't know if it helped or hurt, but you know, it worked out the way it worked out.
>> As a nation, there are times where we can be divided. And this person asks if you could speak to any specific solutions on reconciliation and starting unity.
>> What's the last part again? Reconciliation and what?
>> And fostering unity.
>> And fostering unity. Well, you know, I would say that unity is much more subversive and difficult than it sounds. We are in a culture now where it's far easier to be divisive than it is to be civil and to find areas of common ground. And politicians, public officials, respond to incentives like all of us. And right now the most vocal incentives are coming from the extreme ends of their base. And so on the right it is the most, you know, mobilized folks in the Tea Party. On the left it's probably the more, you know, the folks that are toward the furthest end of that spectrum. And because those are ones that are speaking the loudest and raising the most money and most active on Twitter and social networks, you would think that they outnumber everybody else. And they're also the ones that politicians most readily respond to. The actual situation, though, is that most of America is not on those polar ends. They're actually somewhere in the middle. They want reasonable solutions. They want compromise. They want stuff to just get done. But we don't hear from those folks in the halls of power in Washington. You know, I often ask the question, and it's a question that my hand was down when someone asked me how many people, and I'll honestly say, how many people have ever visited the district office of their congressman? Just a handful. And that's fine. It's no problem. It's not like the most fun place to go. But I can guarantee you that Tea Party activists on the right and the folks that are, you know, to the furthest end of the left are there. And they are Tweeting. And they are organizing. And they are working. They are creating a demand for ideological purity rather than compromise. And so I think if we're going to create a greater unity, then we have to be bold enough to, as folks who are somewhere -- you know, we may be Democrats, we may be liberal, we may be conservative, but we're not, you know, on the ends of the spectrum. We have to speak out ourselves. We have to show up at a congressional office and say hey I want you to end this shutdown rather than to continue it. We have to Tweet our politicians when they do something that is divisive and say that, you know, we're usually with them, but not this time. We don't like what they did and their tone. We have to be able to hold our own parties accountable for those types of things. We have to create a demand for civility. And unless that happens, we're going to keep seeing this over and over again. So I don't think it's just on Washington. I actually think it's on us as voters to speak out and to let our elected officials know that if they are reasonable, we will support them. And when they are not, we won't. Because right now they're not hearing from us.
>> Given increasing secularization, what do you see as the future of faith-based initiatives?
>> I think the future is strong. I would say, yes, I think that we are increasingly secularized country. That said, I'm heartened that over the last couple years and even over the last few months there's been some, you know, some reclaiming of true religion in the sense of getting back to the basics and shedding the politics and the divisiveness and really talking about what the core principles of our faith. In the Christian tradition, which is the tradition that I'm in, not to speak for other people, but it's really getting back to Jesus and who Jesus was and what he means for this world. I'm so excited about Pope Francis. And I don't think that he's liberal. I don't think that he's conservative. I think he wants to get back to the basics of faith, of loving God, modeling Jesus and serving our neighbors. And I think that that will start changing the dynamics of religious affiliation in our country when people stop seeing religion as all the things that people are against and start understanding what religious people are for.
>> So, I think we've come to our last question.
>> All right.
>> And this audience member wants to know if --
>> You are going to identify yourself, this last one, okay?
[ Laughter ]
>> Well, they said that they were happy to hear an alternative position on contraception than is sometimes presented as the Administration's stance. And they said that they were wondering if you could speak to the reflections of the President -- the President's public policy relationship with the Catholic Church.
>> Sure. You know, I would say that the President has a deep affinity for the Catholic Church and the historic role of the Church in American life and around the globe. He would often talk with me and others about how much he valued Cardinal Bernadine, growing up in Chicago. Some of the young folks may not know him but go look him up. He's a wonderful, dear soul. He did tremendous work for the poor and vulnerable and you know, the infrastructure of the Church. Again, his first job was funded by CCHD, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. And he, I think, has the greatest respect for organizations like Catholic charities and Catholic relief services and the good work that the Bishop's Conference is doing. I think, you know, this has been a robust debate around religious liberty. But I think that, you know, that we are still able, and the Administration is still able to maintain strong relationships with the Church in other areas. Catholic Relief Services is still doing tremendous work that's funded by the federal government in communities around the globe developing communities that are impoverished. Catholic Charities is still doing phenomenal work on everything from refugee resettlement to anti-poverty programs at the same time. And so I think it's -- with big entities like the Catholic Church, you've got to be able to manage a bunch of different relationships and dynamics and issues at the same time. You can have I think a challenging, multi-faceted conversation around religious liberty on the one hand, but you also have to be able to continue the partnership with that entity on the other fronts. And I think that's something that the President is able to do without hesitation because of his deep respect for the Church. All right. Well, thank you.
>> Thank you very much.
[ Applause ]