Why He Matters
Barack Obama wants to reach out to people of faith in America, and DuBois is going to help him do it.
In the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama had some success appealing to voters of faith, whose focus on family values had long made them the predominant domain of Republican candidates. Much of that success came from his director of religious affairs, DuBois. DuBois’ familiarity with the Christian community helped him advise the Democrat on tricky religious issues, including quashing persistent rumors that Obama was Muslim and handling the possibly campaign-ending comments from Obama’s controversial pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
As head of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, 26-year-old DuBois will help steer federal dollars to social service organizations—both church-based and secular—and get those groups involved in the government’s efforts on social issues. In the Obama administration, that could mean neighborhood and faith groups have a more active role than ever in policymaking.
Obama also created the President’s Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, a group of 25 leaders representing various religious and secular groups. They will offer input on policy as well as advise DuBois’ faith office.
“The sense here is that the Obama administration will go further in making sure faith groups really have a seat at the table when it comes to solving America's most pressing problems,” Christian Broadcasting Network’s David Brody reported.(1)
Path to Power
DuBois was born in Bar Harbor, Maine. His stepfather was an itinerant minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, so he spent much of his childhood on the move.
He lived in Cambridge, Mass., as a young child. But he was mostly raised in Nashville, Tenn., and considers it his hometown. He attended high school in Xenia, Ohio.
DuBois wanted to go to a big city for college, so he returned to New England to attend Boston University. There, as a 17-year-old freshman, he became involved in social activism after he was “struck by the injustice” of the acquittal of four New York City police officers who had shot and killed unarmed Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo.(2)
DuBois stood for hours on a busy Boston plaza as a vigil to Diallo. He was approached by fellow BU student Eugene Schneeberg, who invited DuBois to a nearby church affiliated with the United Pentecostal Council of the Assemblies of God, a small, predominantly African-American denomination.
"Initially, I was not interested in reintegrating myself in a Christian community, because I figured I knew it all, growing up in the church," DuBois said. "But what I didn't really know was how to have a personal relationship with Jesus."(2)
DuBois was eventually named associate pastor at the church, Calvary Praise and Worship, and occasionally filled in as preacher.
DuBois earned his bachelor’s degree in political science in 2003, and went on to Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School, where he received his master’s in public affairs in 2005.
He moved further south to Washington, D.C., to enroll in law school, going part-time to Georgetown University. At the same time in 2004, he worked as an intern in Rep. Rush Holt’s (D-N.J.) office and then as a fellow in Rep. Charles B. Rangel’s (D-N.Y.) office.
Then, DuBois heard Obama’s keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, and one line impressed him: "We worship an awesome God in the Blue States."
"I had been struggling with whether I should go into ministry or politics,” DuBois told the Boston Globe, “and I felt that God was leading me to find a way to do both, but I didn't know any politician that got that intersection right," DuBois said. "That phrase jarred me."
After hounding Obama’s staff, DuBois was hired as a legislative correspondent in Obama’s Senate office in May 2005. DuBois never completed his law degree, leaving instead to work on the 2008 Obama presidential campaign.
In 2008, at the age of 25, DuBois was appointed director of religious affairs for the Obama campaign. He orchestrated a program that reached out to people of faith on a scale unheard of for a Democratic candidate at the time. His efforts included hundreds of town hall meetings and house parties on the subject of faith in America.
"I think you're going to see a lot of folks who have never voted for a Democrat before really give Senator Obama a hard look," DuBois told the Boston Globe.(2)
Courtesy David Brody / Christian Broadcasting Network
DuBois heads the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and also oversees the Centers for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships in each executive agency.
The office acts as a liaison between faith and secular community groups and the White House, often partnering with them to tackle social issues. It also helps these groups apply for federal grants available to them.
The Washington Post called DuBois’s appointment a “new direction for the office” after it was beset by controversy during the Bush administration.(3)
The Bush administration’s Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives was criticized for focusing too much on religious groups to the exclusion of secular non-profits and for becoming too politicized.
Rather than cut the Bush-created office, Obama is expanding it. Including neighborhood and community groups may be an Obama administration nod to secular non-profit organizations who felt excluded by the Bush Administration’s office.(4)
Politics and Faith
Dubois’s knowledge of the Christian community allowed him to guide Obama through some tricky situations during the 2008 presidential race.
DuBois knew the faith community well enough to have the candidate sit down with key people in the faith-based media, a tactic which helped squelch persistent campaign rumors that Obama was a Muslim. DuBois also set up a major meeting between Obama and conservative evangelical leaders in June 2008.
DuBois also helped steer Obama through the controversy surrounding his pastor and longtime friend, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, after ABC News revealed that Wright once sermonized that black Americans should say “God Damn America,” instead of “God Bless America,” and other inflammatory comments.(5)
During the 2008 campaign, DuBois and his small staff tread a fine line when reaching out to religious groups, whose tax status limits their political activities. They often counseled church officials on how to comply with those regulations.
"We're very up front - we're a campaign, and we want you to vote for Senator Obama - but we're not going to try to co-opt religion, we're not going to try to use religion to divide folks, we're not going to steal church directories to call people to vote," DuBois told the Boston Globe.(2)
DuBois "is a very close confidant and adviser to President Obama, so this demonstrates the president is very committed to working with faith groups and organizations in this country," said Burns Strider, who was DuBois’s counterpart on the Hillary Rodham Clinton presidential campaign and now does faith-based political consulting. "He's put a trusted adviser to run it so it can hit the ground running."(3)
Before he worked in Obama’s senate office, DuBois worked for Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) as an intern and then as a fellow for Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.).
Adam Taylor, the senior political director at Sojourners, an evangelical anti-poverty organization, said DuBois became "part of a loose network of progressive-minded Christians" who have been meeting in Washington for the past few years.”(6)
Brody, David, “Exclusive: President Obama’s Council on Faith,” CBNnews.com, February 4, 2009
Paulson, Michael, “Obama’s Man of Faith,” The Boston Globe, July 10, 2008
Boorstein, Michelle and Michael D. Shear, “DuBois, 26, to Head Faith Office,” 44 blog, WashingtonPost.com, January 30, 2009
Murray, Mark, “Obama’s Faith-based Rollout,” msnbc.com, February 4, 2009
Ross, Brian and Rehab El-Buri, “Obama’s Pastor: God Damn America, U.S. to Blame for 9/11,” ABCnews.com, March 13, 2008
Paulson, Michael, “Obama’s Man of Faith,” The Boston Globe, July 10, 2008