October 15th, 2010
07:41 PM ET
CNN's Dan Gilgoff filed this report:
The White House pushed back Friday against allegations that President Barack Obama's faith office is abusing its power for political gain.
Responding to charges from former George W. Bush administration officials that a conference call Obama hosted with religious leaders on the new healthcare law crossed the line into political outreach, the White House said Friday that "there could hardly be a more appropriate audience," for such a call.
"When congregants fall ill, faith communities come together to support their brothers and sisters in need," White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships Executive Director Joshua DuBois wrote on the White House blog.
"And when families struggle, they often turn to religious leaders for the spiritual and practical support to move forward," Dubois continued. "This is why faith leaders requested information about a new health care law ... "
The White House response came after former Bush aides publicly criticized the conference call, saying it was an example of Obama abusing the office to win political support from religious leaders.
"According to the White House website, the faith-based office exists 'to more effectively serve Americans in need,'" Jim Towey, who directed Bush's faith office, wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed last month. "I guess that now means Americans in need of Democratic talking points on health care."
"Do we really want taxpayer-funded bureaucrats mobilizing ministers to go out to all the neighborhoods and spread the good news of universal coverage?" he continued.
Towey also knocked Obama for asking the thousands of religious leaders on the call to become "validators," of the healthcare law, saying Bush would have fired him for using the faith office that way.
This week, another Bush official - former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson - spoke out against the office under Obama.
"I was involved in the faith-based office at the Bush administration and I think (Obama) has abused that office in political ways," Gerson told the Christian Broadcasting Network, "doing outreach on healthcare and other federal initiatives instead of focusing on what religious-based charities can do for the poor."
The White House acknowledged the criticisms Friday in its blog post, saying "former Bush Administration officials have taken to the airwaves to criticize (our) effort to reach out and engage communities of faith."
But DuBois stood by the office, which was launched by President Bush in 2001 and was retained by Obama, to the disappointment of some church-state separation advocates.
While the Bush office was aimed mostly at helping to "level the playing field" for faith-based and nonprofit groups applying for federal money to tackle problems like poverty and substance abuse, Obama's faith office has focused on non-financial relationships with faith and nonprofit groups.
Obama's office has promoted the president's Fatherhood and Mentoring Initiative, sought common ground on abortion through a new Pregnancy Assistance Fund and has helped faith and community groups respond to the flu, DuBois said in his blog post Friday.
"There's no doubt that President Obama has taken a new approach to partnering with the faith community," DuBois wrote.
"Many have observed that the previous Administration's Faith-Based Initiative was focused squarely on dollars and cents - promising financial rewards for certain faith-based organizations," he continued. "Unfortunately, critics held that many of those funds failed to materialize and opportunities to engage in non-financial ways were missed."
Towey said Friday that suggestions that Bush's faith office doled out "financial rewards" to politically supportive religious groups are unfounded.
"The reality is that if you looked at federal dollars that went out the door, the overwhelming majority went to Democrat-sympathetic organizations," Towey, a Democrat, told CNN.
"If it's going to be a political outreach office to the faith community, every White House already has that - the office of political affairs," Towey said. "For us, that was on the Karl Rove side of the White House."
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.