c. 2006 Religion News Service
WASHINGTON — On Aug. 21, Jay Hein became the third director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives. In his new role, the former think-tank president intends to continue toward President Bush’s goal of giving religious groups equal access to federal funding for social services.
Despite the initiative’s tendency to be controversial because of its location at the intersection of church and state, Hein is convinced of its purpose and hopes to see it have greater influence on the local and state level.
Hein stepped down as elder of his nondenominational church in an Indianapolis suburb, but he expects to eventually return to the area and resume his work with Sagamore Institute for Policy Research. RNS spoke with Hein, 41, about his plans at the White House.
Q: Following up on the work of John DiIulio, a scholar on faith-based services, and Jim Towey, whose biggest claim to fame was being the former lawyer for Mother Teresa, what expertise do you bring to the job?
A: Both of those gentlemen I consider friends. I admire both John’s social science background and Jim’s advocacy. I do hope to bring similar strengths to the position in addition to my policy background.
Q: What did President Bush tell you he wanted to see happen with this job?
A: He spoke very clearly to me prior to my appointment about his priority status for this initiative and he asked me, therefore, to concentrate on two things: ensuring results for the good work that’s under way and continue to grow its impact and influence.
Q: Given your research on faith-based initiatives and welfare reform, what is it about this complicated issue that drives you to be one of its “champions,” as the president called you?
A: Both of these initiatives — welfare reform and the faith-based initiative — care about people who hurt and that’s what draws me in. … Welfare reform speaks to care from the government side of the question. The faith initiative speaks to how society at large, particularly private agencies, can deliver care. I consider those two efforts companions.
Q: What do you think is least understood about the needs of faith-based organizations?
A: I think the scope and the scale of their reach in community. There’s not a problem in society that a faith-based organization isn’t addressing.
Q: When the faith-based initiative stalled on Capitol Hill, the president shifted to executive orders and a further focus on working through federal agencies. Is that going to be your focus or are you going to look more at the states?
A: I don’t think the faith-based initiative stalled when the early legislation didn’t pass. … The early legislation didn’t pass but the initiative had many forms. … Broadly speaking, there are three tenets to this work. One is policy or legislation; another is program administration, and a third would be education and outreach. … There’s been progress made in all three fronts at various stages.
Q: In addition to working at the national level, do you expect to be working at the state level?
A: The office is already involved in providing technical assistance to the state and local policymakers. That will be an increased emphasis under my leadership.
Q: How do you respond to critics who wished the office you now lead would be closed and who think it inappropriately mixes church and state?
A: I understand that there are critics who share such a concern. For us, the Constitution is quite clear that religion is welcome in society and that religious organizations are protected in adhering to their religious character. At the same time, the religious liberties of every individual (are) protected. This is the dynamic balance of our Constitution. So our office is vigilant about the clear line that separates government (from) sponsoring religion. That does not occur in this office.
If the critics are concerned about that, we believe that’s misplaced.
Q: Do you think the continuation of this White House office will depen
d on the political affiliation of the next president?
A: I don’t know what the future of this office will hold, of course, given uncertainties about political succession, but the initiative in many respects was formed prior to the president’s taking office. This is something he championed as governor (of Texas). . And I believe strongly that it will grow at a more rapid pace or arc because of the president’s leadership.
Q: So you’re saying the soul of this office will continue. But will the office’s physical structure continue?
A: I do believe that the activities of this office are being integrated into government operations and that that will continue.
Q: How do you feel about the use of vouchers that would permit recipients of social services to choose from faith-based or secular organizations?
A: It’s one of my favorite strategies, to be sure. Vouchers provide consumer empowerment by giving choice to the person receiving services. They become active in their own recovery strategy or their own pursuit of economic self-sufficiency.
Vouchers also are deemed by legal experts to be the most effective tool to protect religious liberty.
Q: Some people say the White House tried to bury the announcement of your hiring by releasing it at 6:30 p.m. on a Thursday. Not even a photo-op with the president. Does that bug you?
A: The president gave me a very clear signal of his commitment. The reference … made by reporters about that topic struck me as more of a Washington-centered reference, more of a political reference than a substantive reference. All objective indicators indicate that this administration is increasing its commitment to this initiative.