Religion
2:08 pm
Sun May 5, 2013

A Search For Faith In 'Godless' Washington

Originally published on Mon May 6, 2013 2:03 pm

War has brought the act of faith to the forefront for those who occupy the White House. President Lincoln famously issued a call to prayer during the Civil war. Franklin Roosevelt announced D-Day to the nation with a prayer.

Today, President Obama receives a daily spiritual meditation. The man who sends those messages is a Pentecostal minister named Joshua DuBois.

When he first moved to Washington, D.C., DuBois says he had already formed an impression about the spiritual life of the town.

"I had heard that Washington was, quite frankly, a pretty godless place," he says, "that people weren't serious about their faith and their values."

But what he found was quite the opposite.

"A lot of folks who were active in the public square, when they got back home, they took their faith practice pretty seriously, and that was illuminating for me," he says.

DuBois worked with religious communities across the U.S. as the head of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships under Obama. In February 2013, he stepped down and took a teaching position at New York University, and also writes for the Daily Beast.

He tells Kelly McEvers, host of weekends on All Things Considered, that he now sees the nation's capital as a place where peoples' faith is strong. In a recent article for Newsweek, he writes of congressmen, senators and other officials in the public eye who practice their faith openly.

"We just peer a little bit into their lives, not their proclamations, but their private, lived experiences," DuBois says.

That includes people like Sen. Ben Cardin from Maryland, who's Jewish and observes the Sabbath, and Congressman Andre Carson, a Muslim who prays five times a day from his Washington office.

DuBois also wrote about a group of four officials, two Democrats and two Republicans, who meet regularly at a coffeehouse.

"It's a fascinating story," DuBois says.

"Across these significant political divides, they get together once a week and spend a little time in conversation and prayer," he says. "They share about each other's lives, and learn about each other's families, and really seek to bridge those divides."

It often seems that high-profile people in Washington are reluctant to make their faith public. DuBois says there's a desire to remain authentic.

"There's a suspicion that if they're seen as touting their faith and their values, or wearing it on their sleeves, that people will think that they're seeking to gain some political benefit from their religious testimonies," DuBois says. "I think folks are very sensitive about that."

During his own tenure in the capital, DuBois found his faith changed by Washington.

"It has stretched and grown," he says.

"It was a constant struggle, as it is for many people of faith in politics, to maintain your core values and belief when they're under attack," he says. "In many cases, like in the course of a campaign and you're in pitched battle with someone else, you know, there's a temptation to go beyond the boundaries of what your faith says about how you should treat other people."

"Having to fight those battles, winning some and losing some of those internal battles, I think really served to strengthen my own Christian faith — as I think it has done for many people of diverse faith backgrounds in D.C."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

In times of war, our leaders often turn to acts of faith. President Lincoln famously issued a call to prayer during the Civil War. Franklin Roosevelt announced D-Day to the nation with a prayer. Today, President Obama receives a daily spiritual meditation. And the man who sends those messages is a Pentecostal minister named Joshua DuBois. He says he thought he knew what to expect when he first came to Washington.

JOSHUA DUBOIS: I had heard that Washington, quite frankly, was a pretty godless place.

MCEVERS: But what he found was something else.

DUBOIS: A lot of folks who were active in the public square, when they got back home, they took their faith practice pretty seriously, and that was illuminating for me.

MCEVERS: As President Obama's former head of the Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships Program, you worked with a lot of religious communities around the country. What did people out around the country tell you what they thought about Washington?

DUBOIS: They also shared the belief that God was very far from this town. You know, I remember sitting down with evangelical college students from Texas or Jewish seminarians from New York. And all of them would kind of look at me with bewildered eyes and say, you know, how can you be a believer in Washington, quite frankly? And it just - it seemed to them that this was a place that did not really open itself to people of faith and belief.

MCEVERS: In a recent article you wrote for Newsweek, you talk about congressmen, senators and other officials, people really in the public eye who practice their faith openly. Can you tell us about that?

DUBOIS: Sure. In the piece, we kind of profiled folks from different religious backgrounds who have a serious-lived experience with faith. We talk about Senator Cardin from Maryland and how he practices his Jewish faith and the importance of his Sabbath dinner. And we look at Congressman Andre Carson who's a Muslim American and does prayers five times a day in his office when he's here in town. And Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, who has a very serious Catholic faith himself. And so we just kind of peer a little bit into their lives, not their public proclamations, but their private-lived experiences.

MCEVERS: You also write about a group of four officials - two Democrats, two Republicans - who get together and meet at a coffeehouse, right?

DUBOIS: That's right. It's a fascinating story. There are four guys, there's Max Finberg, who's an employee in the Obama administration, and Adam Taylor, who was a former White House fellow under President Obama. Then, of course, there are two Republicans: John Hart, who's communications director for Republican Senator Tom Coburn; and Ron Ivey, who's a Republican consultant.

And across these significant political divides, they get together once a week and spend a little time in conversation and prayer. And they share about each other's lives and learn about each other's families and really seek to bridge those divides.

MCEVERS: It seems like high-profile people in Washington don't necessarily want to make their meetings and their faith public. Why do you think that is?

DUBOIS: You know, I think there is a desire to remain authentic. And there's a suspicion that if they're seen as sort of touting their faith and their values or wearing it on their sleeves that people will think that they're seeking to gain some political benefit from their religious testimonies. And I think folks are very sensitive about that.

MCEVERS: Were there people who didn't want to talk to you?

DUBOIS: You know, I think eventually everyone was open to the conversation, but it took a little doing for some of them. I won't say who, but...

MCEVERS: Sure.

DUBOIS: ...I had to reassure that this wasn't, you know, just another recitation of their public proclamations on faith or, hey, Democrats are religious, Republicans are religious. But I really wanted to dig a little bit into their lived experiences, what were some of the interesting stories of their faith along the way.

MCEVERS: How has your own faith changed or been shaped by your time here in Washington? What have you learned?

DUBOIS: Sure. It has stretched and grown, I would say. It was a constant struggle, as it is for many people of faith and politics, to maintain your core values and belief when they're under attack. And when, in many cases, like in the course of a campaign, you're in pitched battle with someone else, you know, there's a temptation to go beyond the boundaries of what your faith says about how you should treat other people.

And so having to fight those battles, winning some and losing some of those internal battles, I think really served to strengthen my own Christian faith, as I think it has done for many people of diverse faith backgrounds in D.C.

MCEVERS: Joshua DuBois, thank you so much.

DUBOIS: It's my pleasure.

MCEVERS: That's Joshua DuBois. He's the former head of President Obama's Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. He's also the author of the forthcoming book "The President's Devotional." It comes out in October. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.