Why the White House Faith Office Matters Right Now

The White House Photo by René DeAnda on Unsplash

(This article first appeared on The Hill)

If we’ve learned anything about Joe Biden, it’s that he believes religion is about both comfort and works. He spoke eloquently during the campaign about how his Catholicism gave him solace through the most difficult chapters of his life, from the death of his first wife and 1-year-old daughter in a car accident decades ago, to the death of his son Beau from cancer more recently. Those times of agony have helped him connect to the suffering that too many other Americans are enduring in the COVID-19 era, and to the central role that faith plays in giving them succor through their grief.

In signing an executive order that re-establishes the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, Biden noted that, in addition to providing comfort through personal grief, faith inspires work that supports people in very concrete ways, saying that the office would “work with leaders of different faiths and background who are on the frontlines of their communities in crisis and who can help us heal, unite, and rebuild.”

A recent report from the Bridgespan Group underscores just how important the contributions of faith-inspired organizations are to our social service systems in the United States. The report states that at least a third of all nonprofits in America are faith-based. The group did a deep dive into six cities (Dallas, Amarillo, San Francisco, Washington, D.C, Detroit, and Montgomery) and determined that at least 40 percent of “safety net spending” in those cities were provided by faith-inspired organizations.

The report is careful to note that this likely undercounts the actual contribution of faith groups. Congregations, for example, provide a significant amount of ground-level assistance to people in ways that are not captured in standard reporting like GuideStar or IRS data. Still, the grocery deliveries and wellness checks literally keep people alive, especially during a cold winter and a rampant virus.

The report also highlights that it is minority and low-income groups that have the strongest connections to faith. 75 percent of African Americans and 59 percent of Hispanics say they feel strongly connected to faith, compared to 49 percent of white Americans. Fifty eight percent of low-income Americans say they feel strongly connected to faith compared to 42 percent of high-income Americans.

The same pattern holds true for the single most vulnerable group when it comes to the coronavirus: namely, the elderly. According to data from a 2020 Public Religion Research Institute survey, only 8 percent of older rural Americans, 8 percent of older Hispanics, and 10 percent of older African Americans claim no religious affiliation.

These are also the exact same groups most hesitant about getting the vaccine. To put it simply, they might not trust a scientist on the news encouraging them to take a vaccine as much as they trust their local pastor. As the Rev. Miniard Culpepper of Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church in Boston told The Wall Street Journal: “We christen their babies, we do their funerals, do their marriages, do prayer for them, and are at the hospital with them. I don’t think there is anything my church won’t come to me with.”

Unfortunately, too many large philanthropic entities do not support the kind of efforts that religious leaders like Rev. Culpepper are involved in, even though such efforts support, even save, the lives of huge numbers of especially vulnerable Americans. The Bridgespan report found that faith-inspired organizations receive only 2 percent of all grant dollars from the top 15 institutional philanthropies.

And this is why reconstituting the Faith Office (which basically went dormant during the Trump years) is so important: It recognizes, supports and networks the efforts of local religious leaders, of faith-based nonprofits like the Inner City Muslim Action Network and Catholic Charities, and of religion-inspired efforts like the practice of langar (which basically means feeding all who come) by the Sikh community.

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As our friend Rev. Jim Wallis, who also served with us on President Obama’s Faith Council, often said, there should indeed be a separation of church and state, but not a divide between government, diverse religious communities and issues of moral concern.

The death, devastation and despair that the coronavirus has wrought is the very definition of a five-alarm moral fire. Government agencies working together with diverse religious communities and faith-inspired nonprofits have all the tools to put it out.

Eboo Patel is Founder and President of IFYC, an interfaith organization. He served on President Obama’s Inaugural Advisory Council for the White House Faith Office. His most recent book is “Out of Many Faiths: Religious Diversity and the American Promise.”

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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.