What just happened?
Last week the Trump administration announced that televangelist and prosperity gospel preacher Paula White had been selected to head up the White House’s Faith and Opportunity Initiative. White, who is said to be President Trump’s spiritual adviser and personal pastor, will work in the Office of Public Liaison, and with the Domestic Policy Council.
A day after the announcement was made, White’s ministry emailed supporters under her name asking them to donate $3,600 to achieve “opportunity and favor” from God. As Nicola A. Menzie reports, the email states: “During this season something so supernatural will take place and it will literally shift your life in a very positive way, IF you have ears to hear and connect to the prophetic moment. Friend, YOU MUST STAY CONNECTED TO ME DURING THIS PROPHETIC SEASON!”
White’s email says that to receive the blessing, the supporters must follow her instructions:
Friend, you must understand the instruction that follows in order to align yourself with this SUDDENLY. You cannot ignore the prophetic and apostolic instruction that follows. You are a spirit being and I must be sensitive to the leading of the Spirit of God. This is how He commissioned me to process this to you.
The additional instructions include fasting for three days and a “prophetic demand” to give to her “sacrificially.” White’s supporters are required to give $3,600, $300, or—“if you are limited severely”—$70. White provides the dollar amounts based on the number of animals sacrificed by a follower of God in 2 Chronicles 29:27–36.
What is the White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative?
The Faith and Opportunity Initiative is similar to the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, which was created under President George W. Bush and continued under President Obama as the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
Nine days after taking office in 2001, President George W. Bush created the White House Faith-Based and Community Initiative with the stated purpose to “lead a determined attack on poverty, disease, and other social ills in partnership with faith-based and other community organizations (FBCOs).” Prior to this initiative, there was often little to no direct engagement between the efforts of the federal government and community faith-based organizations. Bush’s executive order created centers for the Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (FBCI) in five federal agencies that administer a broad range of social service programs.
Regulations and practices previously discouraged many faith-based groups from partnering with government, even when the local organization was more effective in providing solutions to social issues such as substance abuse, homelessness, or natural disaster recovery. In 2002, Bush announced that religious groups would be eligible to receive federal funding to implement programs usually carried out by secular non-profit organizations.
Under President Barack Obama, the initiative was renamed the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Obama also created an Advisory Council that included former megachurch pastor Joel Hunter, World Vision president Richard Stearns, and Sojourners president Jim Wallis.
Although President Trump did not abolish the initiative, he left it dormant for the first 18 months of his presidency. In May 2018 he issued an executive order re-establishing the program and renaming it the White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative. White is the first head of the program since it was reintroduced a year and a half ago.
What is the current role of the White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative?
According to President Trump’s executive order, the initiative will consult with and seek information from experts and various faith and community leaders from outside the federal government on a variety of issues, including poverty alleviation, religious liberty, strengthening marriage and family, education, solutions for substance abuse and addiction, crime prevention and reduction, prisoner re-entry, and health and humanitarian services.
The initiative also notifies the attorney general of concerns raised by faith-based and community organizations about any failures of the executive branch to comply with protections of federal law for religious liberty. The initiative is also responsible for identifying and proposing means to reduce burdens on the exercise of religious convictions and legislative, regulatory, and other barriers to the full and active engagement of faith-based and community organizations in either government-funded or government-conducted activities and programs.
Additionally, Adviser White is tasked with making recommendations to President Trump, through the assistant to the president for domestic policy, regarding changes to policies, programs, and practices that affect the delivery of services by faith-based and community organizations.
Is it constitutional to give federal funding to faith-based groups?
As the United States Government Accountability Office notes, each year the federal government gives billions of dollars to organizations that provide social services to needy families and individuals. The funds are usually issued to organizations through competitive grants and contracts. Because of the First Amendment, the federal government cannot discriminate against an organization simply because it is religious in nature.
In 1996 Congress also enacted “charitable choice” provisions, which allowed religious organizations to compete on the same basis as other organizations for federal funding under certain programs—without having to alter their religious character. For example, faith-based organizations are allowed to retain religious icons and symbols in the facilities where they provide services and generally aren’t prohibited by federal law from making employment decisions based on religious grounds, even after receiving federal funds.
However, they are prohibited from providing “inherently religious” activities such as prayer, worship, proselytization, or religious instruction with direct federal funds. Government-funding rules require that any inherently religious activities the organizations might offer be separate in time or location from services eligible to receive federal assistance. These organizations must also not discriminate against beneficiaries on the basis of religion.