Obama's Faith-Based Advisers: Round Two

By Adelle M. Banks
Religion News Service

WASHINGTON -- President Obama has named top U.S. church leaders to an advisory council on faith-based programs, but the list of appointments is also drawing questions about a lack of diversity from minority faiths.

The 12 names released late Friday (Feb. 4) include top officials of prominent organizations -- from the Episcopal Church to the National Association of Evangelicals to the United Way.

The list included no prominent Muslim or Hindu leaders; the White House says the list will be expanded later with 13 additional names.

The Rev. Welton Gaddy, president of the Washington-based Interfaith Alliance said he was "shocked" the initial names for the panel did not include known leaders outside the Christian and Jewish faiths.

"I would think that it would have been a priority to have had a Muslim leader on there and at least one representative from the non-Abrahamic traditions," he said.

The White House would not comment on the diversity of the panel but said more names are to come.

"We look forward to announcing the additional members at a later date, at which point the 25 members will begin the process of producing recommendations to improve the government's partnerships with faith-based and other nonprofit organizations," said White House spokesman Shin Inouye.

The new panel members include four denominational heads -- Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori of the Episcopal Church; Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; Greek Orthodox Archbishop Demetrios; and the Rev. Nancy Wilson, moderator of the predominantly gay Metropolitan Community Churches.

Evangelical leaders include Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals and Lynne Hybels, co-founder with her husband Bill of Willow Creek Community Church, a suburban Chicago megachurch.

Jewish officials include Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative rabbis, and Susan Stern, special adviser on government affairs to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Other appointees include: Andrea Bazan, president of Triangle Community Foundation in North Carolina; Angela Glover Blackwell, founder of PolicyLink, a California-based nonprofit that seeks economic equity; Brian Gallagher; president of the United Way Worldwide; and Sister Marlene Weisenbeck, an officer of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

The first panel of 25 members completed its work last March and was expected to soon be succeeded by another group. Vetting of the next group has taken longer than expected, but Obama signed an executive order in November that reflects some of the first group's recommendations for reforming the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

Sofian Abdelaziz Zakkout, director of the Miami-based American Muslim Association of North America, hopes the complete list will include Muslims.

"We need to work together," said Zakkout, who said his educational organization counters Islamophobia and terrorist threats. "If we are not going to work together we are not going to have a stronger America."

Gaddy, who served on a task force on reforming the office, said he was disappointed that thus far the panel does not include any outspoken leaders who have wanted to see the office improve transparency and accountability, such as placing more information online about rules concerning religious federal grant recipients.

"Those things are not going to happen accidentally," he said. "It's going to take great intentionality."

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