A Key Ingredient for Bipartisan Efforts in 2016

On January 12 President Obama delivered his final State of the Union.  Several times in his speech, President Obama addressed the theme of the potential areas of cooperation between Democrats and Republicans, and between him and Congress, for the remainder of his term.  In the opening moments of the State of the Union, Obama noted: “I hope we can work together this year on some bipartisan priorities like criminal justice reform -- (applause) -- and helping people who are battling prescription drug abuse and heroin abuse.” Obama also focused on possible bipartisan efforts on issues of poverty and opportunity: “I also know Speaker Ryan has talked about his interest in tackling poverty. America is about giving everybody willing to work a chance, a hand up. And I’d welcome a serious discussion about strategies we can all support.”

Faith-based organizations, from prison ministries to initiatives to empower human trafficking victims to agencies providing financial literacy training for underserved youth, have been on the forefront of developing “strategies we can all support” for some of today’s most critical challenges. How should faith-based organizations interpret and respond to the president’s remarks? It is essential that faith-based organizations make the connection between their own faith-centric impact and the areas for potential bipartisan cooperation that the president mentioned: substance abuse, criminal justice reform, and poverty and opportunity.   Faith-based service agencies daily provide innovative solutions and programs in the key areas the president highlighted as having the most hope for bipartisan support.  For example, faith-based drug treatment programs around the country provide comprehensive care, recognizing their clients must integrate their physical, emotional, and spiritual health for long-term success.

How should faith-based organizations interpret and respond to the president’s remarks? 

As Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne has said: “[Religious drug treatment centers are] there to transform the whole person. The way you transform the whole person is to create a relationship with Jesus. Once you have that relationship, you will have the strength to overcome this particular problem…..Programs like that have had success.”

Faith-based organizations first must recognize the distinctive value of the services they provide for their communities. They must articulate this value in terms of their faith-based missions, and they must step up to forge relationships with policymakers and the media. Faith-based groups must educate government officials and the public about the indispensable role they play in addressing some of the most pressing needs on our society today.

Secondly, faith-based organizations can be leaders in these areas.  It is important not only for faith-based organizations to build reputational capital within their communities, but to translate a positive community reputation into positive relationships with community stakeholders and policy leaders.  Faith-based organizations should position themselves as trusted subject-matter experts and resources for policymakers regarding what works in key areas such as prison reform, jobs programs, and poverty alleviation. Moreover, faith-based organizations are also the most effective instrumentalities in educating policymakers about the importance of protecting their freedom to serve in accordance with their faith.

Faith-based organizations should not neglect the administration’s faith-based initiative as one channel for speaking out and collaborating with the federal government to achieve common goals. The White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships’ purpose is, “to build bridges between the federal government and nonprofit organizations, both secular and faith-based, to better serve Americans in need.” Faith-based organizations should consider reaching out to Centers in the federal agencies relevant to their service areas to explore potential partnerships with the government in innovating solutions to America’s most persistent needs. For example, a faith-based organization with an urban garden dedicated to providing fresh produce in a food dessert community and providing jobs for youth could reach out to the USDA’s Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. For more information and resources about ways in which to partner with the federal government, check out the Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships’ Toolkit: “Partnerships for the Common Good: A Partnership Guide for Faith-based and Neighborhood Organizations.”

Faith-based organizations of a variety of faiths often are called, both inwardly by their faith and outwardly by society, to be peacemakers. It is telling that the areas of hope for bipartisan cooperation which Obama emphasized in last week’s speech are areas where faith-based organizations often shine the brightest and have the largest impact.  President Obama’s prediction about the legislative unproductivity of an election year may come to fruition. But whether or not bipartisan reforms are passed in 2016, faith-based organizations will undoubtedly continue ministering to the prisoner, providing jobs for those in need, comforting the afflicted, and advocating for justice and equal opportunities for the most vulnerable Americans.

If you work for a faith-based organization, donate time or money to one, or receive services from a FBO, you should be encouraging that organization to step up and speak out about is distinctive successes and innovative solutions for such a time as this. 

- ‎Chelsea Langston is the Director of Equipping and Membership at Center for Public Justice