Faith in American Public Life (Melissa Rogers) - A Review

FAITH IN AMERICAN PUBLIC LIFE. By Melissa Rogers. Foreword by E.J. Dionne, Jr. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2019. Xii + 338 pages.

Church and State might be separate in the United States, but despite claims of a naked public square, the wall of separation has never been a very high wall. It’s there, but you can see over it. Maybe it’s more a line in the sand than an impermeable wall. I seem to remember Martin Marty saying something to that effect at time or another. While there are constitutional parameters that offer protections for both state and religious life, religion is rarely far from public life. While some may claim that religion’s place is threatened, in my experience it remains pervasive.  

                One who knows a lot about the relationship between faith and public life is Melissa Rogers, who has authored Faith in American Public Life. She is currently a visiting professor at Wake Forest University, but before that, she served in the Obama administration as the Executive Director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. A Baptist, Rogers reflects that stream of Baptist belief and practice that has sought to keep the state at arm's length in its relationship with the religious community. That perspective is on display here. I will add that before she took a position within the Obama administration, I approached her about endorsing my book Faith in the Public Square: Living Faithfully in 21st Century America, which she graciously agreed to do.

                Normally I don’t review books in this forum, that I purchase myself. Most of the books reviewed here are provided by the publishers, for that I’m grateful. However, I believe this book is too important not to highlight in as many places as possible. There is a lot of misinformation as to what is allowed and what is not. So, we need guidance from those who are persons of faith who recognize the value that faith brings to the public square, but also the dangers that are inherent to this engagement. I come to this conversation as one who is a police chaplain and is close friends with public figures, including a state representative. I pray at community events. So, I bring my faith into public life, while trying not to transgress the boundaries that keep “church” and “state” from becoming entangled. I don’t know of a better person to help us navigate these realities than Melissa Rogers.

Standing at the center of this book is Rogers' commitment to protecting religious liberty. That term has become problematic, so we need to define it. By religious liberty, Rogers insists that this liberty must be extended to all people, whatever their religion, and whether they are religious or not. We live in a time when some are loudly demanding religious freedom for themselves but do so in a way that would impose their beliefs and practices on others, even as they complain that their rights to freely practice their religion are being denied. Regarding religious freedom, Rogers writes in her introduction that "while the Constitution prohibits government-backed religion, it protects the rights of religious individuals and organizations to promote their faith. And rather than undermining faith, the limits the Constitution places on government’s involvement in religion help to preserve faith's integrity and influence" (p. 3). That is the point of the book. Rogers helps us understand how the Constitution and its interpretation have defined the way faith functions in this country, as well as the ways in which religious liberty can be preserved without it impinging on the rights, beliefs, and practices of others.

Rogers begins the conversation by giving us an introduction to the historical origins of the role of religion in the Constitution. It is important to remember that at the time of the nation's founding most colonies had religious establishments, and yet the Constitution banned religious tests for officeholders, and then further defined limits in the Bill of Rights. The efforts that went into this are detailed in chapter 1. From there we continue the conversation about religion and the Constitution with a discussion of central concepts and cases that have defined the relationship of religion and public life. These include the ban on religious tests. There is also the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which is not a limit placed on religion, but as Rogers notes, it places a “limit on governmental involvement in religion.” That is, it prevents the government from promoting faith, which “creates freedom for individuals and organizations to do so or not, as they wish” (p. 35). Then there’s the “Free Exercise Clause,” which allows us to act on our beliefs. The government cannot, with few exceptions tell my congregation or me how to practice my faith. Here is an important point: “In both Establishment and Free Exercise cases, the Court has recognized that the government should not attempt to make theological judgments, acknowledging that ‘[i]t is not within the judicial ken to question the centrality of particular beliefs or practices to a faith, or the validity of a particular litigant’s interpretations of those creeds’” (p. 39). For that I give thanks!

While there are no religious tests for government office, Presidents and other government officials don’t give their right to practice their faith when they enter government. With regard to our Presidents, most have tended to have some form of religious belief, but they are not uniform. While to this point all have embraced some form of Christianity, their beliefs are not uniform. Ultimately, one doesn’t have to be a Christian to be President. Rogers helps us understand the role religion has played, ranging from the way in which Presidents have attended religious services to establishing offices in the White House to create relationships between the Presidency and the faith communities. There is also a chapter on the role of religion in defining policy and politics and one on religious expression on Government property. She helps us understand court rulings that have placed parameters on what is allowed and what is not, including religiously oriented holiday displays. There is also a chapter on the government partnerships with faith-based organizations, which she knows quite well from her work in the Obama administration. As she notes, there are valuable ways in which government and religious communities can partner, but they have to be navigated in a way that protects all parties. Finally, there is the proper use of federal funds that are distributed to and through faith communities. Knowing what is allowed and what is not, is important if we’re to protect religious liberty while allowing free religious expression.

In recent years, especially since the passage of the Affordable Care Act and the SCOTUS decision on same-sex marriage, the courts have dealt with important questions as to what kinds of religious exemptions are permissible. When it comes to issues of discrimination and provision of services, both governmental and private, who is exempt on the basis of faith? Does this apply only to explicitly religious entities like a church, temple, synagogue, or mosque? What about businesses? Or, individuals? Rogers takes up all these questions, showing us how the courts have responded, as well as her interpretation of these rulings (including her critiques of sometimes conflicting rulings). She also takes up the question of respecting religious freedom in the workplace, including accommodation of religious expression (these include wearing of the hijab or other religiously designated clothing or symbols). Finally, there is a chapter on religious discrimination and hate crimes.

                At the end of each chapter Rogers provides a series of recommendations for handling the issues discussed in the chapter. Thus, with regard to the chapter on Religious Expression on Government Property, Rogers offers five recommendations regarding "providing space for faith to flourish, without governmental support or interference. The first recommendation is that government officials should "ensure that the equal access principle is understood and applied." Secondly, "hew closely to Supreme Court guidance on any governmental monuments, displays, or acknowledgments that include religious elements. Third, "remember that bring-line rules on governmental displays, monuments, and acknowledgments are not necessarily better rules." In other words, sometimes complete clarity isn't helpful when it comes to rules. Fourth, "public schools should train administrators and teachers on consensus rules and proactively draft school policy on religious expression in consultation with the full range of stakeholders." Schools needn't be religion-free zones, but there needs to be an understanding of what is appropriate. Finally, "teach about religion." She writes that "we simply cannot understand our nation or our world without understanding religion" (p. 100). Indeed!

Again, Faith in American Public Life is a most important book that addresses some of the major issues of the day. As E.J. Dionne writes in his foreword to the book: “The issues she grapples with are questions on which must of us see only partially and imperfectly. We bring a lot of baggage to just about everything touching on religion. Rogers wants us to unpack our bags, appreciate the grandeur of the First Amendment, and do the very best we can to defend each other’s rights” (p. x). With this, I’m in complete agreement. This is not an easy book to read. It’s not that she obfuscates and obscures, it’s because these are difficult questions. As Dionne notes, we carry a lot of baggage, and so unpacking that baggage requires a gifted hand and a discerning eye. One may not agree with all her recommendations or interpretations, but I have read few people who better understand the complexities of these topics as Melissa Rogers. So, please, take the time to read carefully. We will better for it as a nation and as people of faith.


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