Mind the Leadership Gap: Why it should have been called the White House Office of Goodwill Neighborhood Partnerships

On the 16th day following his inauguration as the 44th President of the United States of America, Barack Obama established by way of an executive order the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. This Office, according to the February 5th White House press release, "will be a resource for nonprofits and community organizations, both secular and faith based" supporting such groups to "work on behalf of Americans committed to improving their communities, no matter their religious or political beliefs."

Now although the opinion generated by this controversial presidential order has covered much ground from the time of its February 5th signing, a question of no small significance remains unexamined. To date we have heard a great deal from those sitting on the two readily identifiable sides of this controversy; on the one side, religious groups who are delighted with the prospect of continued government funding for faith-based community projects and, on the other side, those who regard such funding as unconstitutional. What has remained unexamined, by contrast, is the question of exactly what this executive order means to President Obama. Clearly this is a question of no small importance; for what this executive order means to the President, I would suggest, is not at all what it means to most others, especially those operating within the said polarity. What has remained unexamined is the question of the role played by President Obama's most basic assumption about human nature--an assumption that not only informed his decision-making process in the case of this project, but one that will inform the President's decision-making process and leadership going forward. An understanding of this the President's most fundamental assumption about human nature and thus his vision for this program, I would further add, is not only necessary to measure the success or failure of the program, but also, to allow for corrections should things move off course or, worse still as I believe we are now seeing, altogether fail to get properly on course in the first place.

Barack Obama, it should be understood, is a man of faith, but not in a conventional sense of that notion. Indeed very much in contrast to the faith-based experiences of most individuals, for Obama spirituality has far less to do with what one believes than it has to do with the good works that result from those beliefs. Ideologically-based convictions in themselves, in this regard, whether, I will now add, they are of a religious or secular nature, have little or no credence except to the extent they are validated by the actual good works issuing from them. This view is entirely consistent with Barack Obama's upbringing, as I explain in Democracy and Self-Organization: The Change of Which Barack Obama Speaks:

It is perhaps not surprising that absolutistic assumptions about life and its meaning were not part of Barack Obama's own upbringing. In fact under his mother's direction, Barack Obama was led to view disparate and even competing religious belief systems and ideologies with empathic openness and tolerance, as he explained to Charlie Rose in an interview in 2006: 'I didn't grow up in a religious household. My mother, who was an anthropologist, would take me to church once in a while, and then she would take me to the Buddhist monastery, and then she'd take me to a mosque. Her attitude was religion was fascinating and an expression of human attempts to understand the mysteries of life.' Of course the phrasing 'human attempts to understand the mysteries of life' is not be overlooked, as it speaks, not to the possibility of an absolute understanding of the life process and God, but rather, to the possibility of an approximate understanding of the life process and God, much as is no less true of the limitations of scientific inquiry itself. Yet with such epistemological limitations and all her 'professed secularism' taken into account, Barack Obama could only conclude about his mother that she 'was in many ways the most spiritually awakened person that I've ever known. She had an unswerving instinct for kindness, charity, and love, and spent much of her life acting on that instinct, sometimes to her detriment ... she worked mightily to instill in me the values that many Americans learn in Sunday school: honesty, empathy, discipline, delayed gratification, and hard work. She raged at poverty and injustice, and scorned those who were indifferent to both. Most of all, she possessed an abiding sense of wonder, a reverence for life and its precious, transitory nature that could properly be described as devotional.' [pp. 41-42]

As I noted in a previous Huffington Post blog, "An Inaugural Invocation For A Man of Goodwill," Barack Obama, although a deeply spiritual person, can in no way be conceived of as a religious fundamentalist, since for him ideology and dogma are entirely secondary to acts of goodness. Barack Obama, I suggested, accordingly, is most accurately characterized as "a goodwill fundamentalist, which is to say, someone who believes in the infallibility of goodwill, something no doubt his mother instilled in him."

For President Obama the OFBNP project is ultimately about one thing only; it is not about the sponsorship and promotion of religious ideology and dogma; it is not about the sponsorship and promotion of secular ideology; what it is about, rather, is the freeing of genuine goodwill acts from the potential constraints of both of these, not to speak of the behemothic constraints of government bureaucracy. Speaking with specific reference to the freeing of goodwill acts from the ideological limitations of the latter, President Obama stated at the time of the signing of his executive order on February 5th:

Over the past few days and weeks, there has been much talk about what our government's role should be during this period of economic emergency. ... But no matter how much money we invest or how sensibly we design our policies, the change that Americans are looking for will not come from government alone. There is a force for good greater than government. It is an expression of faith, this yearning to give back, this hungering for a purpose larger than our own, that reveals itself not simply in places of worship, but in senior centers and shelters, schools and hospitals, and any place an American decides.

'There is a force for good greater than government;' there is a force for good, I would add by way of extending this point, greater than all secular and religious ideologies combined. It is for Barack Obama a force whose tangible presence is announced to us in the form of goodwill acts. Addressing his National Prayer Breakfast audience in Washington. D.C., President Obama thus spoke candidly and compellingly about the constraints that religious ideologies have historically placed on acts of genuine goodwill:

... as I see presidents and dignitaries here from every corner of the globe, it strikes me that this is one of the rare occasions that still brings much of the world together in a moment of peace and goodwill ... far too often, we have seen faith wielded as a tool to divide us from one another - as an excuse for prejudice and intolerance. ... There is no doubt that the very nature of faith means that some of our beliefs will never be the same. ... But no matter what we choose to believe, let us remember that there is no religion whose central tenet is hate. ... We know too that whatever our differences, there is one law that binds all great religions together. ... the call to love one another; to understand one another; to treat with dignity and respect those with whom we share a brief moment on this Earth.

It is an ancient rule; a simple rule; but also one of the most challenging. For it asks each of us to take some measure of responsibility for the well-being of people we may not know or worship with or agree with on every issue. ... It requires us not only to believe, but to do - to give something of ourselves for the benefit of others and the betterment of our world.

In this way, the particular faith that motivates each of us can promote a greater good for all of us. Instead of driving us apart, our varied beliefs can bring us together to feed the hungry and comfort the afflicted; to make peace where there is strife and rebuild what has broken; to lift up those who have fallen on hard times. This is not only our call as people of faith, but our duty as citizens of America, and it will be the purpose of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships that I'm announcing later today.

There should be no doubt that President Obama's intention is to provide by way of the OFBNP unprecedented support for goodwill works. There should be no doubt that the President's intention is to utilize non-governmental religious and secular groups as the conduit of a goodwill surge--and in so doing it is his hope that these religious and secular groups will rise above the limitations of their ideological differences and embrace a common endpoint. Seeking to convey the endpoint focus of his newly created White House Office by way of quoting St. Augustine, the President told his Washington audience: "Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depended on you." The endpoint is the key--the endpoint is, to be sure, the only point of reference and that point of reference for President Obama is the work, the goodwill work.

Prayers are not being funded, nor are beliefs being funded, rather, goodwill works are being funded. Clearly this is the President's intention, but this being said signals to the contrary have been sent out, such as the presentation of conversion testimony at the time of the project's launch, as from former British Prime Minister Tony Blair --testimony which wrongly pushes the question of belief to the forefront. Then there are the important questions that have been raised about the responsibilities and structural bias of the newly created 25-member OFBNP advisory council. In a March 26, 2009 Guardian article, Sarah Posner wrote:

... few Americans have grasped how President Barack Obama is surrounding himself with spiritual advisors whose politics are less extreme and vitriolic than the religious right, but whose views of women and gender are far closer to those of religious extremists than to those of mainstream Americans ... Obama enlarged the role of the OFBNP to provide guidance on matters including 'fatherhood' and 'abortion reduction.' That these policy concerns should be the province of religion is bad enough. Obama also stacked the council with men, many of whom are opposed to reproductive rights.

Similarly, with reference to the OFBNP advisory council, Martha Burk wrote in her Huffington Post blog on February 22, 2009:

To accord this advisory panel so much power, while relegating women to the margins, speaks volumes. Religious groups gained a lot from the Bush years - access to the White House, and millions of dollars in federal money, some of which was used to proselytize. And don't forget, almost all faiths consider women second class citizens; many actively campaign against affirmative action, the Women's Equality Amendment, the international human rights treaty for women known as CEDAW, and civil rights for gays and lesbians.

Much as the assumptions of scientific paradigms restrict which scientific findings will and will not be taken into consideration, much as the assumptions of scientific paradigms restrict which research paths will or will not be followed, the ideological assumptions of secular and religious worldviews, there should be no doubt, will hold no less sway over the decision making processes of steering committees such as the 25-member advisory council. Inclusivity and balance, therefore, must be taken as requisites when it comes to the question of the council's directional integrity.

"One of the great strengths of the United States," President Obama noted in his April 6, 2009 news conference in Turkey, speaking with reference to America's historic regard for secular and religious balance and inclusivity, "[is that even though] we have a very large Christian population, we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation; we consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values."

How much clearer could the President's intentions be? But this being said even the best of intentions, as we well know, are never enough. What is required, therefore, to keep the OFBNP project from going sideways, is the introduction of precise navigational points oriented to specific endpoints or outcomes.

What is needed to keep this project from going sideways is for the President to close a leadership gap between vision and execution--a leadership gap that has not only presented with this project, but also is starting to show up elsewhere. What is needed is for the President to close a leadership gap between the consciousness level at which he is capable of functioning and his level of policy execution. Given the steep learning curve that any new President must undergo such missteps are not surprising. What does, however, especially concern me is that given the uniqueness of President Obama's vision--that for which the American electorate so fully moved behind him--correction may not be as simple as delegating more. Indeed the solution to this problem may need to take the form of delegating less. Delegation, if it is to amount to anything of value, requires the delegated responsibility to be handed off to someone capable of carrying it. My great concern is that those around the President may often be at a loss when it comes to interpreting and actualizing his vision. The 'new,' as a consequence, is getting poured into the molds of the 'old.' Going forward, the President, it seems to me, will need to assume the responsibility of ensuring a more precise interpretation and execution of what he has in mind.

The President may have made his own way through the religious and secular ideological labyrinths through which the OFBNP initiative must pass to succeed, but the greatest threat to the success of this project is that the fine line that has been genuinely walked by the man of goodwill is largely indiscernible to most. "Begin with an error of an inch," a well-known Chinese proverb aptly relates, "and end by being a thousand miles off the mark." It would have been a far more precise starting point if the President had simply called it the White House Office of Goodwill Neighborhood Partnerships.