In 2013, President Obama appointed Melissa Rogers, the former general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, to run the White House’s Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
I know there’s plenty of reason to criticize the office itself — why is the government getting involved with the promotion of faith-based partnerships? — but the office wasn’t about to go away. And Rogers was someone who respected the Establishment Clause — so much so that her appointment was met with gushing praise from the leaders of several church/state separation groups, including Americans United, the ACLU, Interfaith Alliance, the American Humanist Association, and the Center For Inquiry.
During Rogers’ time there, the office met with the Secular Coalition for America, invited atheists to a discussion about “interfaith and community service programming on campus,” and pushed for a policy preventing groups receiving grants from preaching while using taxpayer funds.
So while the office itself was the center of a lot of criticism from the atheist community, Rogers was certainly more inclusive of us than anyone before her and the office did what it could to prevent religious proselytization at taxpayers’ expense.
Since Donald Trump entered the White House, the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships has been one of many departments he’s just forgotten about or flat-out ignored. He hasn’t appointed anyone to run it or staff it.
Is that a good thing?
It’s not like the office has been abolished, and there’s an argument to be made that Trump staffing it with the sort of people who have infested his administration so far would do a lot of damage.
What may be surprising to many is how that argument is coming from Rogers herself:
… even though I led the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships from 2013–2017, an office President Trump has yet to staff, I believe we should not insist that Trump have such an office just to have it. I’m proud of the work we did to serve people in need through a variety of partnerships with faith-based and secular organizations. But I also know that, if the office is not set on a strong foundation, it can do more harm than good. For example, if the office does not welcome all faiths, or if it prefers some faiths over others, it will be a blight on our tradition of religious freedom. If it instructs, rather than invites, religious communities to participate in its work or the work of the broader administration, it will undermine the separation of church and state. And if the office were to promote religion, rather than the common good, it would distort faith, usurp the jobs of religious leaders and organizations, and violate the consciences of all Americans. In short, it would be better not to have such an office than to have an office that is not committed to principles like these.
In short, if Trump does what we all know Trump is likely to do, then it’s better to let the office languish. (Says the former director of the office.)
Rogers also takes issue with politicians who are treating the word “secular” as a slur, as if people who aren’t religious (or religious in ways not approved by the GOP) shouldn’t be considered for positions of power, whether it’s leading departments or running for Congress.
Just as an officeholder is not necessarily a good leader simply because he or she is personally religious, an officeholder is not necessarily a bad leader because he or she is not religious or does not practice his or her faith in conventional ways. Let’s not create tests that would deprive us of the leadership of a future Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln.
Can you see why church/state separation groups appreciated her leadership in the Obama administration?
For all the talk about how Trump isn’t personally religious, it’s worth mentioning again that Trump is apathetic, not an atheist. He doesn’t put any thought into the matter. He’s willing to cede a lot of political control to right-wing Christians who have every intent of using the government to promote their religious beliefs. And Trump doesn’t know any better — or doesn’t care enough — to stop them.
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