ACU professors attend White House briefing

Posted May 16, 2012

The White House held a special briefing, "Advancing the Common Good at Home and Abroad," on May 4, which included four ACU professors among its attendees. Dr. Mark Hamilton of the Graduate School of Theology; Dr. Jerry Taylor and Dr. Christopher Hutson of the Department of Bible, Missions, and Ministry; and Dr. Carisse Berryhill of the Brown Library received invitations to the briefing.

The event, hosted by President Obama’s Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, discussed key domestic and international topics important to the faith community. Topics included a progress report on the goals spelled out in Obama's faith-based initiative, which aims to facilitate partnerships between faith groups and the government. These collaborations seek to provide improved education and school systems, feed the hungry, work toward stopping human trafficking, create community programs and more. Members of the president's staff sought input from academic and religious leaders on current and future initiatives.

"I came away with a strong sense that this administration works hard to understand religious points of view and to cooperate with religious leaders in helping them address problems more effectively," said Hutson, who was one of an estimated 150 religion professors in attendance.

"It is important that as religious educators we both hear from government policymakers and that they hear from us," said Hamilton. "One of the beauties of Western democracy is the commitment to open communication between government and citizens. The rights of citizens to seek redress of grievances, to speak freely, to assemble peacefully, and to worship openly are so deeply rooted in our way of thinking that they shape much of what we do. This is especially true in our world, in which religion plays such an important role in shaping moral commitments and the decisions that flow from them. The briefing gave us the opportunity to be part of that two-way conversation, and I am grateful for that invitation to participate."

The White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships was formed under the George W. Bush administration. A discussion on ACU's campus in 2008 led by Dr. Shaun Casey on the role of religion in the public square influenced and reshaped the function of the office under the Obama administration. Casey ('81) is an ACU alum and professor of theology at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. He is an adviser to the Obama administration on religious affairs and helped organize the event.

"I have been interested in this office since the 2008 conversation with Casey," said Dr. Berryhill. "I was moved by the hopefulness and passion of the White House staff who believe congregations and volunteer organizations are vital to healing wounded people and communities."

One example of this is a community action program discussed at the briefing. "One of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships' signature programs is the President's challenge for diverse religious and non-religious student groups on a campus to spend a year cooperating on a service project, such as an environmental cleanup, an adopt-a-classroom project or a community garden," Berryhill added. "More than 200 colleges signed up within the first year! I believe working together on a service project has the potential to break down cultural barriers and prejudices."

This was Taylor's second trip to the White House. In 2002, he met with Senators Rick Santorum and Joseph Lieberman, David Kuo, and the late Jack Kemp to discuss President George W. Bush's Faith-Based Initiative.

"The briefing revealed to me in a profound way how many committed Christians are working quietly behind the scenes in the Obama administration, making an eternal difference in the lives of many poor people in this country and around the world," Taylor said. "The meeting also added to my level of respect for the president because he is encouraging these young people of faith to put teeth into the operation of the Faith-Based Center."

Both Berryhill and Taylor note that most government officials involved were young people.

"These young people -- and most of them are very young -- are working very hard to help local religious and volunteer leaders connect with sources of expertise and policy in Washington," said Berryhill.

"The administration officials were mostly young people, graduates of religious schools with degrees that emphasize serving the needs of others. These individuals are compelled by their faith in Christ to do their work effectively," Taylor said. "Joshua Dubois, who convened the meeting, serves as special assistant to the president as his faith advisor. Dubois was interviewed by CBN (Christian Broadcasting Network) and he revealed his strong upbringing in the Christian faith."

Hamilton noted that the briefing helped strengthen lasting and healthy relationships between policy-makers and educators, including those at ACU.

"Last week was a nice reminder of the mix of freedom and responsibility that scholars have," said Hamilton. "Government officials try, by and large, to make informed and thoughtful decisions, and scholars try to understand and help others understand. So there's a natural relationship, and in some ways an inevitable one. Neither side is likely to be forced by the other into doing something it doesn't want to do, but both groups can learn from one another and try to understand each other. For those of us in academia conversations like last week help us to understand how principles of justice and peacemaking get played out in the real world. I hope it was also a chance for us to say to government that we should not get so bogged down in the minutiae of policy that we forget why we're doing all this to begin with. The key is to ask, what's next?"