March 18, 2013
President Barack Obama
President Barack Obama (EPA/Molly Riley / POOL)

Largely lost last week in news about the election of Pope Francis and the ongoing wrangling around the budget was the announcement that President Obama had appointed Melissa Rogers as the new director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

It is an excellent choice about which I claim absolutely no neutrality. In fact, I offer this post not only to explain why I think Rogers is a superb choice, but also as a form of disclosure to readers, since I write often about the relationship of religion to politics and the importance of faith-based organizations in promoting justice, empowerment and charity.

First, the disclosure: Melissa and I are not just friends; we have also worked together on these issues for well over a decade, beginning when Melissa served as executive director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. It’s a research organization I helped start in collaboration with Luis Lugo of the Pew Trusts and Jean Bethke Elshtain, the distinguished political philosopher. Luis now directs the Forum, with which I continue to have friendly dealings, but no formal ties. Melissa later became a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, where I am a senior fellow.

Our most important collaboration as it relates to her new job was to write a report together on the future of the White House faith-based office. We have worked together on a number of other projects as well. One of the many things she taught me is the importance of understanding both parts of the First Amendment’s religious clause: the need to guard against government establishment of religion and the need to guarantee its free exercise. (And, by the way, this isn’t the first time a friend has ended up in this post: President George W. Bush’s first director of the office, John DiIulio, was and remains a dear friend with whom I had also worked on these issues long before his selection.)

All of this is a matter of public record, but since I will continue to write about subjects that connect to the work of the faith-based office — and since transparency is always better than the alternative — I thought it would be useful to call readers’ attention to the joint work Melissa and I have done.

But Melissa is an excellent choice not because of our work together, but because she is, quite simply, one of the most knowledgeable people in the country about the issues the White House office deals with. She is widely regarded as one of the nation’s smartest church-state lawyers. She chaired the Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. There, she worked closely with Joshua DuBois, whom she is now succeeding at the White House, in implementing reforms that drew support across a very wide spectrum of opinion. Both of them worked hard and, I think, successfully to reduce the polarization and conflict around faith-based partnerships. Melissa can count among her friends some of the most conservative and most progressive voices on these questions.

What Melissa has that’s rare in Washington these days is an ability not simply to listen to a wide range of views, but to understand where competing parties in the debate over faith-based partnerships are coming from — including (and this is what matters) views that are not her own. Writing last week at The Post’s On Faith section, Dr. Joel C. Hunter, a senior pastor of Northland Church, and Rabbi David Saperstein, the Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, summed up Melissa when they called her “an honest broker, a consensus-builder, and a problem-solver, and someone who believes that government should be actively engaged with civil society, including religious institutions and individuals, to promote the common good.” She headed a variety of consensus efforts where she won the admiration of both the staunchest supporters of the idea that church and state should remain entirely separate and the most enthusiastic backers of close partnerships between government and faith-based groups. She knows it’s important not only to reach consensus, but also to understand the real sources of disagreement. This makes it possible to clear away phony issues and to have productive — as against debilitating — arguments.

One of my very favorite statements on the proper approach to politics was offered some years ago by Glenn Tinder, the philosopher and author of, among other books, “The Political Meaning of Christianity.” Writing in a volume published in the early 1990s by the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, Tinder wrote that we should seek to create an “attentive society” — one that “would provide room for strong convictions, but its defining characteristic would be a widespread willingness to give and receive assistance on the road to truth.” My friend Melissa combines strong convictions with a refreshing openness to different views on how to find that road to truth. It’s the right orientation for the job she’s taking on.

E.J. Dionne writes about politics in a twice-weekly column and on the PostPartisan blog. He is also a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, a government professor at Georgetown University and a frequent commentator on politics for National Public Radio, ABC’s “This Week” and NBC’s “Meet the Press.”