By John Lavenburg, National Correspondent
NEW YORK — Responding to requests from religious communities and organizations, U.S. President Joe Biden signed an executive order Feb.14 to reestablish a White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships created under the Bush administration and revamped during the Obama years.
Melissa Rogers will revive her role as the office’s executive director, a position she held from 2013-2017 during President Barack Obama’s second term. Josh Dickson, who led faith and outreach for President Joe Biden on the campaign trail, will serve as deputy director. Trey Baker, who led African American engagement for the campaign and is now the White House senior advisor for public engagement, will serve as the office’s liaison to Black communities.
In the announcement Sunday, Biden highlighted the bipartisan approach the office intends to bring to help try to solve some of the nation’s prominent issues.
“There are not Democrats or Republicans dying from this pandemic, or losing their jobs, going hungry and facing eviction in this economic crisis, or facing the sting of systemic racism or the brunt of the climate crisis,” Biden said. “They are fellow human beings. They are fellow Americans. And this is not a nation that can, or will, simply stand by and watch the suffering around us. That is not who we are. That is not what faith calls us to be.”
The 46th president said he reestablished the office “to work with leaders of different faiths and backgrounds who are the frontlines of their communities in crisis and who can help us heal, unite and rebuild.”
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. Obama rebranded the initiative in 2009. Both were located within the Domestic Policy Council.
It was again 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.
A press release from the White House on Sunday outlined five areas of focus for the Biden administration’s version of the office:
- Address the COVID-19 pandemic and boosting economic recovery
- Combat systemic racism
- Increase opportunity and mobility for historically disadvantaged communities
- Advance international development and global humanitarian work
- Strengthen pluralism and respect constitutional guarantees
In an email, Eric LeCompte, executive director of the Jubilee USA Network, told The Tablet that “it’s exciting that President Biden is opening a White House faith office.” However, he said that what’s more exciting is the “office has a defined mission” to focus on the issues above.
Jubilee USA Network was one of 50 faith-based organizations that called on Biden to revive the office in a letter the day after inauguration day. The letter identified health, immigration, racial justice, climate, poverty, and peacemaking as issues that faith-based organizations are essential advocates and allies.
Other signatories of the letter include NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, Church World Service, Pax Christi USA, Leadership Conference of Women Religious, Catholic Labor Network, and National Advocacy Center of Sisters of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd.
In the letter, the organizations argued that “engagement with the faith community enhances government work and enables it to be better informed on decisions made.”
In previous conversations with The Tablet, some organizations’ leaders also noted a desire to bring back something more robust than what existed the past four years — something more like what existed under Presidents George W. Bush and Obama.
Martin Shupack, the director of advocacy for Church World Service, previously told The Tablet that the arrangement of those offices signaled to the organization, “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.”
In an email to The Tablet Sunday, Shupack said the announcement was “terrific news.” He congratulated Rogers, Dickson, and Baker and said the Washington Interfaith Staff Community (WISC) “looks forward to working together for the common good.”
Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK, said Rogers, Dickson, and Baker “are a strong team with deep connections in the faith community and the administration.”
“We are so grateful that the office has been reconstituted. It was critically important in the past and will be helpful for all of the faith community,” Sister Simone told The Tablet in an email. “We are looking forward to working with them to address the needs of our communities as we all struggle to Build Back Better.”
LeCompte said what’s most exciting is that Biden appointed “seasoned leaders” to run the office.