(Win McNamee/Getty) The 2009 National Prayer Service at Washington National Cathedral

Though Thomas Jefferson once famously imagined a “wall of separation” between church and state, subsequent events have often revealed the wall to be relatively lowly and largely permeable. The interactions between government and religion have long left the public—and the courts—to wrestle with a host of questions. What, exactly, constitutes an “establishment” of religion? In what contexts may elected officials practice or endorse a particular faith? To what extent may the state grant exceptions or accommodations to religious groups? Lately such questions have been productive for law classes and political campaigns alike, first for discussion and second for mobilization. In a new book, Faith in American Public Life, Melissa Rogers offers a comprehensive primer on religious belief and government policy, examining these difficult questions with an eye toward developments and challenges under the Trump administration.

Melissa Rogers is an attorney, a visiting professor at the Wake Forest School of Divinity, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. During the Obama administration, she served as executive director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships from 2013 to 2017. From 2009 to 2010, she was chair of President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. In 2019, Washington University in St. Louis welcomed her for a discussion about “Religion and Polarized Politics,” an event co-sponsored by the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, which publishes this journal.

Eric C. Miller spoke with Rogers about the book by phone. Their conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Religion & Politics: This book provides a thorough examination of important legal questions pertaining to First Amendment religious protections. What motivated you to write it?

Melissa Rogers: I wrote the book because I believe the rules that apply to religion’s role in American public life are critically important, yet they have often been mischaracterized and misunderstood. One often hears that the United States Supreme Court has kicked religion out of the public square, that presidents cannot talk about their faith, or that public schools must be religion-free zones, for example. None of that is true. The book seeks to serve as an accessible guide to these issues, one that I hope will be useful to government officials and religious and other civil society leaders alike. I also wrote the book to warn against certain threats to religious pluralism and freedom, the most serious and urgent of which is hostility against and attacks on minorities in this country, including religious minorities.

R&P: When President Bush opened the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in 2003, critics suggested that it marked an inappropriate mixing of faith and politics. Were they wrong about that?

MR: The office President George W. Bush opened broke new ground, but not as much as critics feared or supporters claimed. For the first time, a White House office had the word “faith” in it. It was certainly not the first time, however, that the job description of some White House staff included outreach to the religious community or work on issues where religion, law, and public policy intersect. During the Clinton administration, for example, the Office of Public Liaison included staff whose job was to engage with religious leaders and organizations, the portfolio of the deputy of the Domestic Policy Council included policy issues touching on religion, and the White House Counsel’s Office included staff who were scholars on church-state issues.

Having a White House office with the word “faith” was unprecedented, but it was not unconstitutional. The Constitution prohibits the government from advancing or denigrating religion, preferring one faith over another, or becoming excessively entangled with religion. As long as a governmental office respects such limits, there is nothing unconstitutional about having an office of faith-based and neighborhood partnerships, even in the White House.

R&P: To what degree is it appropriate for a president to practice a faith while in office?

MR: Presidents do not have to leave their faith behind when they take the oath of office. They may continue to practice their faith, including by attending houses of worship and speaking about their faith when they choose to do so. As Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens recognized, “when [government] officials deliver public speeches, we recognize that their words are not exclusively a transmission from the government because those oratories have embedded within them the inherently personal views of the speaker as an individual member of the polity.” Government officials should always speak about their religious beliefs and practices in ways that are consistent with the spirit of the Constitution. They should make clear, for example, that they will protect the right of every American to practice a faith, or not, as they choose.

R&P: In what ways have Barack Obama and Donald Trump been different in how they relate to faith communities?

MR: What is most striking to me is the difference between how President Trump has related to faith communities and how all previous presidents in my lifetime have done so, whether Republican or Democratic. Of course, no administration is perfect, but there had been a strong bipartisan tradition of presidents seeking to bring Americans together across our differences on religion and reaching out widely to religious communities of all kinds. In contrast, President Trump has repeatedly sought to divide Americans along religious lines and fear-mongered on factors such as religion, race, and ethnicity.

While on the campaign trail, Trump called for all members of a religious community to be banned from entering the country simply because of their faith affiliation, and as president he has implemented a travel ban based on that call. The Trump White House has maintained what it calls an “unofficial” evangelical advisory board. As far as I can tell, it has done little outreach to those who have publicly criticized administration policies. The only information we have about that board or White House visitors is whatever the White House and its visitors choose to share. The administration ended the Obama administration’s practice of sharing White House visitor logs with the public, and it does not allow members of the public to participate in meetings of its board, in contrast to the practice the Obama administration followed regarding the president’s diverse Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

R&P: In recent years, “religious freedom” has become a key term among leaders on the Christian Right, who suggest that it is imperiled in the United States. Do you agree?

MR: The most serious and urgent threat to religious freedom in the United States right now is hostility against and attacks on religious minorities in this country. With hate crimes happening at an alarming rate and certain people unable to practice their faith without fear, I hope more Americans will move from the sidelines to solidarity with individuals and groups that are being targeted. An overlapping urgent concern is attacks on houses of worship generally. We’ve seen congregations of all kinds targeted repeatedly for gun violence and vandalism in recent years. No one should have to fear for their safety when they bow their head in prayer.

These are multi-faceted problems that require multi-faceted solutions. But here’s one easy thing all Americans and government officials can do: They can affirm certain principles—in both word and deed—that will help to keep Americans safe, as many civil society leaders recently did. Those principles include the fact that individuals of all faiths and none have equal dignity, worth, and rights to religious freedom, and that a person is not more or less American because of his or her faith. Scapegoating, stereotyping, and spreading false information about any person or community, including religious individuals and communities, must be rejected, and an attack on one religion should be treated as an attack on every faith.

Another concern is the fact that some on and off the United States Supreme Court are calling for the reversal of decades of First Amendment precedent to allow the government to become more involved in religion, for example, through more state-sponsored religious expression. If the Court does, everyone’s conscience will be violated, and there will be de facto preferences for certain faiths. Religious liberty has to be for everyone, not just for those in the majority. Also, when the government promotes religion, the faith that receives the state’s backing is undermined. In such cases, the government usually warps and weakens faith, including by suppressing messages that are critical of the state. That’s one reason why my Baptist forebear John Leland said, “Experience … has informed us that the fondness of magistrates to foster Christianity has done it more harm than all the persecutions ever did.”

On the free exercise side, I’m troubled by a selective approach, one in which government officials would use one yardstick to evaluate religious freedom claims that align with an administration’s policy priorities and another to evaluate free exercise claims that conflict with those priorities. I’m also concerned about governmental overreaching in this area, such as policies that would allow big businesses to impose religion on their employees and blow gaping holes in protections for other civil and human rights. The answer to this challenge is not for the government to do the opposite—to undervalue religious exercise. We have to strike the right balance, which can be challenging. In my book, I try to take all of these concerns seriously.

R&P: Looking ahead, what are your biggest concerns about faith in American public life, either under Trump or after?

MR: In addition to the issues mentioned earlier, I’m concerned about increasing polarization. In the past, Americans have reached across their differences and sometimes been able to find agreement about religious expression and exercise in the public square. People of different faiths and beliefs did so, for example, when they issued joint statements on current law regarding religious expression and exercise in public schools and the public square more generally, and when a diverse Advisory Council made recommendations to President Obama regarding governmental partnerships with faith-based and neighborhood organizations. I hope Americans from across the religious and ideological spectrum will recommit to seeking common ground on religion in public life issues.