The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences

Joshua DuBois on Race, Religion and Justice in America

17W Public Program

Following his public talk titled “Race, Religion and Justice in America: From Obama to Trump,” DuBois joined students for an informal dinner to continue the conversation. Photo by Seamore Zhu.

17W Public Program

Joshua DuBois delivers the MLK Celebration lecture Monday night at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy. Photo by Seamore Zhu.

17W Public Program

Joshua DuBois preaches on this year’s theme of “the fierce urgency of now” for the Martin Luther King Jr. Multi-Faith Celebration at Rollins Chapel on Sunday. (Photo by Joshua Renaud ’17)

Article Type 

Joshua DuBois led the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships in President Obama’s first term and was called the President’s “Pastor-in-Chief” by TIME Magazine. He spearheaded the White House’s work on responsible fatherhood, grassroots community partnerships and religion in foreign affairs, and brought together community and religious leaders from across the ideological spectrum to tackle the nation’s biggest challenges. Joshua is the author of the bestselling book, The President’s Devotional: The Daily Readings that Inspired President Obama, a compilation of the devotional meditations he shared with the President and narratives of faith in public life. Joshua now leads a consulting firm, Values Partnerships, that creates community and faith-based partnerships for the public, private and non-profit sectors. Joshua is a frequent media commentator and has authored four cover stories for Newsweek magazine, including a seminal piece entitled “The Fight for Black Men” which historian Taylor Branch called “stunning.”

On Monday, January 23, 2017, the Rockefeller Center hosted a public talk by DuBois in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day at Dartmouth, titled “Race, Religion and Justice in America: From Obama to Trump,” followed by a student dinner.

Prior to his talk, Rockefeller Center Student Program Assistant for Communications, Nikita Bakhru ’17, sat down with Joshua DuBois for an interview.

Nikita Bakhru (NB): You are one of the United States’ leading voices on community partnerships, religion in the public square, and issues impacting African Americans. What inspired your interest in these areas?

Joshua DuBois (JD): I grew up with a grandmother who was active in the Civil Rights Movement in Nashville, Tennessee. My parents surrounded me with books such as W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk and other texts that inspired communities to rise up and seek their own destiny. I grew up in churches, too, that had a strong social justice focus. I think all of those together granted me the sense that people of good will can mobilize together to demand change on issues they believe are important. I also think my own faith called me to seek justice on behalf of those who don’t have it.

NB: You specifically worked as what many people call the President’s “Pastor-in-Chief.” Could you describe this experience?

JD: Absolutely – I first worked for Senator Obama first before he was President both in his Senate office and then on the 2008 campaign. I then served as his Director of Faith-based Initiatives in the White House: it was both a policy and personal role. On the policy side, I helped the President partner with faith-based and community-based groups to address different challenges that the country was facing, from human trafficking to homelessness. We helped to equip these organizations with the resources that they needed to impact these issues. On the personal side, I got to know the President really well and sent him devotionals every morning that he read to start his day. He became a mentor and friend to me.

NB: Is there a particular anecdote you think exemplifies how you valued your time in the White House?

JD: On the positive side, I remember traveling up the side of a mountain with the President to meet the great Pastor Billy Graham. During that time, the President encouraged me to get off the fence and propose to my then girlfriend. He even called me in right after I did it and said “it’s about time!” On the more challenging side, I had to help the President during times of tragedy. For instance, I was with him after the Sandy Hook massacre. It was definitely a searing time as I supported him while he had to support others himself. Certainly a time I’d never forget.

NB: Looking toward the future, issues of race and religion are under heated debate recently as the Trump administration is taking off. What is your take on the new administration and challenges the country may face?

JD: I think a lot remains to be seen. There will come a moment when the President will be confronted with some pretty tough positions. There may be a case, for example, when an African American is killed in a way that seems unjustified or some action that targets our Muslim American brothers and sisters. The question will be how he responds. If he responds in a way that people of strong moral belief agree with, then the new question will be how we respond to him. I think we will all have to ask ourselves what issues will motivate us to action and what are our core concerns. We need innate courage to speak out even when it’s tough. I hope the new President does the right thing, but I am prepared, if he does not, for communities to mobilize to respond.

The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences