Melissa Rogers was executive director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships under President Barack Obama. She is visiting professor at Wake Forest University’s School of Divinity, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Commonweal contributor John Gehring spoke to Rogers about religious liberty, LGBTQ equality, the Trump administration, and her new book, Faith in American Public Life.
John Gehring: Why did you want to write this book?
Melissa Rogers: A few reasons. The legal rules that apply to the role of religion in American public life have often been mischaracterized and misunderstood. I hope the book will help dispel some of those misunderstandings, which include the idea that the Supreme Court kicked religion out of the public square, or that public schools have to be religion-free zones. That is just not true.
I also wrote it as a call to action regarding certain threats to religious freedom and pluralism. The most serious and urgent threat is hostility and attacks against minorities in this country, including religious minorities. I hope more Americans will move from the sidelines to solidarity with individuals and groups being targeted.
JG: You start the book with Pope Francis’s visit to the White House in 2015, and note that President Obama didn’t want that visit just to be a photo-op, but to help inspire tangible policy. One way that happened, you write, was the Obama administration significantly increased the number of refugees the United States accepted. Why was that such an important victory?
MR: We face a global refugee crisis. Every nation has a moral obligation to do its part to address that crisis. President Obama believed the United States could and should do better. So we wanted to find a way for the nation to be both compassionate and secure. A lot of work happened in the administration to ensure we could welcome more refugees. We were able to do that with an eye toward Pope Francis’s visit. And with those moves, I think we were able to exert moral leadership and make a significant contribution to the global refugee crisis.
When we participate in global refugee resettlement we not only help advance human rights, but also prevent crisis and conflicts around the world, and strengthen our diplomatic toolkit. It was also a very proud moment for the kind of partnerships the government has with faith-based humanitarian organizations. These organizations demanded we do more, and then once we said we would, they came right along and said, “We’re going to help you do this.” It illustrated how partnerships with religious and other civil-society communities can contribute powerfully to the common good.
JG: The Trump administration is doing everything it can to end refugee resettlement. The administration’s Muslim ban specifically targeted a religious group. Attacks on synagogues and mosques have increased. You write that these types of challenges are “the most serious and urgent threat” to religious freedom today. Can you talk about that?
MR: Until President Trump took office, the United States was on track to reach President Obama’s goals on refugee resettlement, which would have been the highest number of refugees admitted to the country since 1994. But refugee admissions have dropped dramatically. In fact, zero refugees were admitted to the United States in October 2019, and an evangelical refugee-resettlement organization reports that that is the first time that’s happened in thirty years. In 2017, we had the second highest number of religion-based hate crimes in the United States ever, after only 2001 in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. My Muslim friends tell me hostility toward them increases during the election season. It’s especially important for those of us who are not being targeted to hold our leaders accountable. There should be zero tolerance for fear-mongering, and an expectation that our leaders should be speaking out for religious liberty and security for all. We have government officials, including the person who has the bully pulpit, our president, engaging in fear-mongering on race, religion and ethnicity, and engaged in dehumanizing rhetoric and violent imagery.
JG: A major theme in your book is how the bedrock principle of religious liberty has become a deeply polarized, culture-war issue. Not long ago, under the Clinton administration, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) passed with bipartisan support. Today, discussions about religious liberty and conscience trigger very intense and different reactions from people on the left and right. How did religious liberty become so explosive?
MR: There are multiple factors, but RFRA laws and similar laws at the state and local level have sometimes been seen less as positive bipartisan measures as they were when they were first adopted, and more as an effort to stall or thwart civil and human rights such as LGBTQ equality. At the same time, we’ve seen increased polarization on a number of issues, and that has weakened our charitable impulses toward others who see key issues differently. To some extent that has also weakened our ability to even understand what the other side is saying and to have relationships across political or ideological lines.
JG: You noted recently on Twitter that Attorney General William Barr, a Catholic who often speaks about religious liberty, also prosecuted Scott Warren for his faith-based efforts to aid migrants on the border, and that the Trump administration has also tried to take land from a Catholic diocese for the border wall despite the diocese’s objections. Are these examples of hypocrisy or a different understanding of religious liberty?