Melissa Rogers, Former Assistant to Pres. Obama, Looks to Cultivate Common Ground in ‘Faith in American Public Life’

“Faith in American Public Life” and author Melissa Rogers. Courtesy images

Melissa Rogers served as special assistant to President Barack Obama and as executive director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships (2013-2017). She is now a visiting professor at Wake Forest University’s School of Divinity. This article is adapted from her new book, “Faith in American Public Life.” Copyright © 2019 by Baylor University Press. Reprinted by arrangement with Baylor University Press. All rights reserved. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.


“We make our own history,” Eleanor Roosevelt said. “The course of history is directed by the choices we make and our choices grow out of the ideas, the beliefs, the values, the dreams of the people. It is not so much the powerful leaders that determine our destiny as the much more powerful influence of the combined voice of the people themselves.”

The choices Americans make now about faith in public life will help to determine our course. With hate crimes and hostility toward certain faiths soaring, Americans have to decide whether we will tolerate this state of affairs or act to change it. If we truly believe all are created with equal dignity and worth, the answer is clear: Every human being deserves safety, security and religious liberty. And an attack on any faith must be treated as an attack against our own.

Especially under current circumstances, there should be no more tolerance for violent rhetoric or fearmongering by candidates or government officials.

To be sure, government cannot stop every hate crime or heal all of our divisions. But leaders have a solemn obligation to do everything in their power to keep us safe and bring us together. Let us reaffirm George Washington’s words, written to the congregation of Touro Synagogue, that the United States of America should give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

These are among the values embodied in the First Amendment’s religion clauses, which serve as co-guarantors of religious liberty. In the face of efforts to dismantle or diminish it, Americans should register their support for a robust understanding of the establishment clause, one that applies to both the federal government and the governments of all 50 states.

In an America that is rapidly becoming more diverse, it is perhaps more important than ever that the government maintain neutrality toward religion, neither promoting nor denigrating faith, nor preferring one or more religions over others.

Strong support is also needed for robust protections for religious exercise, including appropriate religious exemptions. Exempting or accommodating religious individuals and institutions from laws and policies that conflict with their consciences is a time-­honored American tradition, one that plays a key role in recognizing human dignity and protecting inalienable rights.

This same tradition, however, has also taken seriously the burdens that religious exemptions place on individuals who do not benefit from them, and coexisted with robust protections for other human and civil rights. It has also acknowledged distinctions between the commercial and nonprofit spheres.

Making lasting progress on issues like these will require renewed efforts to bring diverse Americans of good faith together to listen to one another and seek common ground. That will not resolve all of our differences, but it will make our conversations and our country better.

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Source: Religion News Service