The Common Good
September-October 1999

What's an FBO?

by Jim Wallis | September-October 1999

The emergence of the term "faith-based organization" in political discussion (and its acronym FBO) may signal one of the most significant new developments in American public life.

The emergence of the term "faith-based organization" in political discussion (and its acronym FBO) may signal one of the most significant new developments in American public life. Vice President Al Gore’s May speech on the role of faith-based organizations has raised the issue to another level. The most likely Democratic nominee for the 2000 presidential race proposed a "new partnership" between the government and the pioneering efforts of faith communities that are finding real solutions to the poverty and violence in many local communities around the country.

George W. Bush, Gore’s likely Republican opponent, has already been experimenting in Texas by partnering with faith-based groups for social service delivery. Bill Bradley, Gore’s only Democratic challenger, has been advocating a stronger role for the organizations of "civil society," including religious ones. It appears that the role of faith-based social programs will be part of the next election debate.

That gives us an important opportunity for putting the agenda of poor people on the political agenda. President Clinton’s four-day poverty tour barely caused a blip on the American political radar screen. But the well-being of the widow, fatherless, poor, and oppressed is not merely a blip in the Bible, but a subject of constant discussion. To make it a matter of serious political discussion in America today should be the task of faith-based organizations.

The most important thing about Gore’s speech is that he went beyond merely affirming the role of faith-based efforts as admirable or exemplary to speaking of their potential strategic role. Gore offered faith-based organizations "a seat at the national table when decisions are made." He promised, "Today I give you this pledge: If you elect me president, the voices of faith-based organizations will be integral to the policies in my administration." For his part, Bush vowed he would "empower" faith-based organizations if he became president.What that might mean will now be the next order of business.

Two of the most powerful forces in the country today are service and spirituality. The growing evidence of both is visible almost everywhere, and together they provide the most potent combination for changing our communities. They are growing streams of committed energy, which, as they begin to flow together, are creating a mighty river of action.

This "spiritual politics" is forging new solutions in local communities across the country by developing civic projects and partnerships committed not just to alleviating the effects of poverty but to actually overcoming it. The devolution of national social policy from the federal to the local level will only strengthen the role of religious communities. While faith-based communities have long provided the bulk of the nation’s social volunteer force, now their successes are being turned to by politicians and social policy analysts searching for new answers.

In this new climate, faith-based ministries would no longer be looked to as merely "a shining anecdote in a pretty story told by a politician," to quote Gore again, but rather as contributors to new social policy formation on the critical problem areas of American life.

That holds the promise of something genuinely new. "Let us put the solutions that faith-based organizations are pioneering at the very heart of our national strategy for building a better, more just nation," said Gore. "...This focus on a New Partnership, which emerges from the voice of the leaders of the faith-based organizations, will invigorate civil society."

Gore’s was a good speech and now he’s looking for new relationships with faith-based leaders and organizations. Bush is also reaching out to many of the same people. Bradley has good relationships with many leaders in the faith community and will certainly be doing his own reaching out as he sees his competitors making new connections. But if faith-based organizations are indeed "invited to the table," our role will not simply be to make government more efficient, but to make America more just. It will not be just to "clean up the mess" created by bad social policy, or to take the place of legitimate government responsibilities, but to bring a morally prophetic voice for new policies.

In this partnership, we will raise the common moral values on which our society must build, and insist on a strong standard of the common good to guide public policy. We will argue that the development of public policy must not be merely dictated by the clash of power and competing interests, but also by fundamental questions of right and wrong; shaped by asking what our moral vision is, what kind of people we want to be, and what kind of country we want to have. For example, the national silence on the rapidly growing social inequality in America is stunning. That is a profoundly moral issue to which the faith community must speak as a biblical issue of justice.

Today there is an incredibly vibrant "direct citizen" politics occurring in many local communities. Much of it is tied to nonprofit institutions, among them many faith-based organizations. National politics must wake up to that and begin to connect with all the grassroots energy and innovation. Perhaps we are at the beginning of that recognition as more and more political leaders are showing interest in FBOs. We must learn how to make the connections between spirituality and politics, while vigorously protecting the First Amendment.

There is enormous potential here—not just for a few exemplary programs, but for a new vision of real social change. It’s a strategy that goes beyond Left and Right, engages the grassroots, and, best of all, might really work. Remember the Christian Coalition’s "voter guides"? How about a voter guide evaluating all candidates in election year 2000 on how they plan to treat poor people? What could be a more biblical question? >

Back to Harvard

When I went to Harvard for the 1998-99 academic year, I didn’t know what to expect. I would be a Fellow at the new Center for the Study of Values in Public Life based at Harvard Divinity School. My responsibilities were simply to research, write, and lecture. But when the opening lecture on "faith and politics" drew several hundred students and faculty, I suspected I was not going to have a quiet year. Regular forums on faith and politics followed every two weeks, focusing on topics such as the churches and welfare reform, the Bible and the poor, the "Big Gap," faith-based organizations in American public life, a movement for economic justice. Our gatherings attracted hundreds of students from the Divinity School, the Kennedy School of Government, the Law School, and even the Harvard Business School, and included many Harvard undergraduates and students from other schools in Boston, as well as leaders from the local community. We established a large core group for the regular forums, with many visitors each time as well. A sense of continuity and community developed, with a great feeling of progress made on the content of the discussions. Several faculty members and fellows from the Divinity School and the Kennedy School joined us and enriched our deliberations. The emphasis was on faith and action, and the response was almost overwhelming. We had clearly struck a chord.

Throughout the year, the conversation about faith and politics continued to pick up steam. We focused, in particular, on the emerging role of faith-based organizations in critical areas of social policy from welfare reform to the deeper agenda of overcoming poverty. I was amazed at how that topic was being energetically discussed around the university. In our forums, we began to look at economic inequality as a religious issue and how it might be put on the church’s agenda and brought into the political debate. What was most heartening was the number and breadth of people who joined in the discussion. I was invited to speak in countless classes, and several campus student groups wanted similar discussions. Everywhere I went I encountered packed rooms to talk about faith and action.

Especially stimulating was the broad range of meetings and conversations I had with members of the Harvard faculty. In several regular gatherings for social policy and political discussions, the subject of religion and politics came up again and again. My friend Richard Parker and I hosted several "potluck" discussions of faith and politics for Harvard faculty and staff members, which proved to be very fruitful as well as a lot of fun. His history course on religion in American life, the first ever at the Kennedy School of Government, drew almost 100 students the first day of class. When I suggested he had a revival going on over there, he told me that was impossible. "I am an Episcopalian," he said.

Best of all were the countless personal conversations with students at Harvard. It’s a real privilege to be part of a young person’s discernment about his or her future. Several of my students were deciding to act on their faith by going into various "public ministries" in medicine, journalism, community organizing, and political advocacy. Others were involved in a living wage campaign at Harvard in support of campus workers. The friendships formed with many of those young people will, I suspect, continue for many years. As I approached the end of my year at Harvard, the interest in the work that we were doing around faith and politics was still just building. Something was certainly happening, and even at Harvard, it began to feel a little like a movement.

This fall I go back to Harvard to teach a course at the Kennedy School of Government on "faith, politics, and society." Just a few years ago such a course would likely have been impossible. Faith-based communities are finding opportunities to provide social leadership and help shape the public debate more than anytime in years. How we respond to such opportunities may be a test of our faith.

JIM WALLIS is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

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