This article appears in Faithfully Magazine No. 1 (Spring 2017).
Joshua DuBois was head of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in the Obama administration from 2009-2013, but began working with the former president years prior when he was a senator. During his time in the White House, DuBois was also appointed Special Assistant to the President. He notably sent Obama daily devotionals, shared in his bestselling The President’s Devotional: The Daily Readings that Inspired President Obama. DuBois heads Value Partnerships, a consulting firm that develops faith-based alliances across various sectors.
When did you and President Obama become acquainted? How far back does your relationship go? What compelled you to want to work with him?
I began working for then-Senator Obama when he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004. I heard his 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention, and agreed with his overall approach to public policy in the speech and appreciated his bridge-building nature. Then, with his evocation of an “awesome God” that we serve in the Blue States—reminding me of times I spent singing worship songs at Fellowship of Christian Athletes camps, singing “Our God is an Awesome God”—I thought as a Christian, here is a progressive who speaks in the language of faith and values. I knew I wanted to work for him, and (to make a long story short) basically showed up at his office several times until he gave me an interview and a job in early 2005.
You were responsible for his daily devotionals during your tenure with President Obama. Do you still occasionally provide any kind of spiritual support for him? Or does the president reach out to you as a spiritual resource?
My primary role in the Senate office, on the campaign and in the White House was leading the President’s engagement of faith-based and community organizations, and forming partnerships with these groups that sought to solve big problems in the world. However, in my personal capacity I was honored and continue to be honored to provide spiritual support to the president (now former president). I’ve enjoyed sending him devotionals to start his day, praying with him from time to time and connecting him with other leaders in times of reflection and prayer. My wife and I continue to support the former president and first lady wherever we can.
How do you describe your faith tradition/orientation and outlook? Do you call yourself an “Evangelical?”
I am a Romans 10:9 Christian—I believe in the Lordship of Jesus Christ, in his death and resurrection, and I know that he is coming again. I try to follow him in every area of my life, often falling short, but that is my ultimate goal. I don’t get into too many labels beyond that.
You continue the work that you did in the office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships with Values Partnership. In your efforts to bring diverse groups and organizations together for the common good, how do you find convincing church and faith-based organizations, Christians specifically, to participate? Are there ever any difficulties?
Faith-based organizations are doing tremendous work in this country and around the world on a range of tough issues, from providing education to kids to combating human trafficking to advocating for refugees and immigrants. At times it is a challenge getting folks to set aside the things that divide them—especially areas of deep passion—in order to focus on points of commonality. But through prayer and relationships those bridges continue to be built.
You noted during a BBC inter- view in November that White Christians had, in a sense, sullied their witness by voting for Donald Trump. Do you still feel that way? What do you think White Evangelicals might have lost by supporting Donald Trump in such large numbers? What do you think some believe they have gained with his election?
I do believe that many Christians set aside their traditional concern for moral values in this past election cycle. They focused squarely on a few issues—namely the Supreme Court and abortion—and largely ignored the concerns of communities of color, women and other vulnerable groups, as well as deep issues of character. The irony is that the abortion rate was at one of its lowest points in recent memory under President Obama, and because of possible restrictions on family planning at home and abroad we could now see that rate increase. I also believe the broad reputation of the church was damaged among those it seeks to witness to—and for the good of the kingdom, I hope that reputation recovers.
Some conservative/Evangelical Christians say they felt betrayed by Obama due to his push for and implementation of policies they believe threaten their religious freedom, such as redefining marriage and the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act. Can you give any insight as to how the president might have weighed wanting to ensure certain rights for all Americans that could at the same time diminish or challenge the freedoms of others?
President Obama stood up for religious liberty in a range of ways. From expanding and strengthening the faith-based initiative to continued understanding of the nuances of coreligionist hiring to important work on international religious freedom and more, despite the views of some on the right, the president’s record on religious liberty is strong. I believe with the Affordable Care Act he and the administration took a series of steps to navigate the difficult balance between ensuring religious liberty and protecting the rights of women to access medical services like contraception. There were heated debates on the nuances of these policies and I was a part of many of them, but ultimately I believe the president intended to strike a balance on this issue in a way that respected religious liberty and women’s rights.
There is the criticism among some, especially Republicans, that Obama did nothing to positively impact or lift Black communities. How do you respond to such criticism?
Unemployment for African Americans is significantly down from its peak, high school graduate rates are up, teenage pregnancy rates are down, criminal sentencing disparity has been addressed in significant ways, a record number of pardons and commutations have been is- sued for non-violent offenders, solitary confinement for juveniles in
federal custody has been banned, millions more African Americans have health insurance, My Brother’s Keeper has been launched, major announcements for women and girls of color…I could go on and on. President Obama’s track record on issues of importance to the African-American community speaks for itself, I believe. He did not usher in a post-racial society as some of his critics expected—and frankly, the president never thought that he would. But he has made major strides that impact real lives, he has inspired a new generation of Black boys and girls around the country, and what’s more he held up a mirror to the American psyche on race, allowing us to finally see who we re- ally are. That in and of itself is major progress.
People often speak of there being a double-standard for Obama, suggesting that his race moved some Americans to be more or unusually critical of his actions and policies. How about in the case of African Americans—do you think the president’s race might have made some Black voters, Black Christians who are often socially conservative, less critical of some of his liberal policies?
I believe that many Black conservatives themselves became less conservative on social issues, particularly rights for LGBT Americans. As more of our gay brothers and sisters live in their truth even in our own congregations, we become less and less accepting of bigotry in this area. I believe President Obama’s evolution on this issue was in line with a broader movement towards empathy, compassion and equality in the African-American community, even among conservatives.