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Opinion Should religion and politics mix?

Kellyanne Conway, left, watches as President Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrive for a dinner at the White House celebrating evangelical leadership on Aug. 27, 2018. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

At a time when Attorney General William P. Barr gives a fire-and-brimstone speech assailing secularism (“This is not decay. This is organized destruction. Secularists and their allies have marshaled all the forces of mass communication, popular culture, the entertainment industry, and academia in an unremitting assault on religion and traditional values") and right-wing evangelical leaders deify President Trump, the relationship between religion and politics is once again being hotly debated. What’s the line between religious accommodation and establishment of religion? What should be the scope of faith-based exemptions from laws? Should religious figures be as enmeshed in partisan politics as they presently are?

During his campaign, Trump pandered to religious conservatives by claiming he would protect them from a supposed war on Christianity. Once in office, he wasted no time seeking to inflame religious divisions by banning Muslims from entering the United States from certain countries. He continues to traffic in anti-Semitic tropes. Interestingly, several Democratic candidates are pushing back against Republicans’ claims to be the protectors of faith-based values.

Melissa Rogers, a visiting professor at Wake Forest University’s Divinity School and a nonresident senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, has a new book, “Faith in American Public Life,” which addresses these and other thorny issues concerning the intersection of religion and politics. As the special assistant to President Barack Obama and executive director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, Rogers wrestled with a plethora of policy issues, including protection from discrimination for those receiving social services from faith-based programs. Our conversation about her book follows.

To what degree did Trump and his support from the evangelical right inspire the book?

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The idea for the book came to me before I served in the White House. Having said that, as I wrote the book, I updated the manuscript frequently to address a number of actions President Trump and his administration took that I find concerning — most significantly, President Trump’s fearmongering on factors such as race, ethnicity and religion, and his use of dehumanizing language.

The book is a call to action regarding these and other threats to religious pluralism and freedom. With hate crimes rising and some 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.

We now see some Democratic presidential candidates speaking more about faith. Why is that, and do you think they have spoken about faith in ways consistent with our constitutional traditions?

Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker are among the presidential candidates who have spoken about their faith on the campaign trail. They are sharing lots of information about what makes them who they are, including their religious beliefs and backgrounds. From what I have seen, they are talking about their faith in a manner that’s consistent with constitutional traditions. The candidates are describing their religious beliefs and affiliations without suggesting that they would favor some faiths over others, for example.

Regardless of whether candidates choose to talk about their personal faith or beliefs about religion on the campaign trail, I hope every candidate will discuss his or her vision for religious freedom and religion’s role in American public life. The candidates should take these issues as seriously as others that are prominently addressed by the Constitution.

Several Democratic presidential candidates are giving stump sermons on the campaign trail, but it will take more than a prayer to win over religious voters. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: AP/Getty/The Washington Post)

We now see religious liberty being used as an excuse to deny service to LGBTQ Americans. Explain why you think that is wrong.

Here’s a religious liberty claim that I believe should be denied, even though I don’t question the sincerity of the claim. Some government grantees and contractors have asserted a religious-liberty right to refuse to serve couples of the same sex who seek to become foster or adoptive parents, despite the fact that applicable rules prohibit all grantees and contractors from doing so. As long as the government is not targeting religious entities but rather enforcing nondiscrimination rules in a general and neutral way, such a claim for religious liberty under the First Amendment should fail. Also, when the government enforces these rules across the board, it doesn’t substantially burden religious exercise. If organizations believe such rules would burden their faith, they can refuse to accept the grant or contract.

Americans are becoming more secular as time goes by. How does that affect religious liberty and establishment issues?

This trend suggests that there is likely to be a stronger push to protect nonreligious claims of conscience alongside religious claims of conscience. And we will probably see more lawsuits and pressure in favor of the inclusion of nonreligious leaders in invocations before legislative sessions, for example, and against things like government-sponsored religious displays.

We will also hear more calls for government officials to reach out to nonreligious as well as religious communities. When I worked in the Obama administration, we forged partnerships with not only Seventh-day Adventist and Sikh communities but also with groups like the Secular Coalition of America. And we found that all of these communities, plus many more, could and would collaborate with one another effectively on shared concerns.

What can a president do to defend both the free exercise of religion and prevent establishment of religion?

A president should pledge that his or her administration will never prohibit anyone from entering the country simply because of their faith. Also, presidents must affirm that there are no second-class religions under the Constitution.

Protecting the rights of social service beneficiaries is another step presidents should take, ideally by working with Congress. Beneficiaries of federally funded social service programs should not be turned away because of their religious beliefs or affiliations (or lack thereof) or pressured to participate in religious activities, for example. They should be notified of protections like these and about the fact that they may request a secular alternative provider if they object to receiving federally funded services from a religious provider.

More generally, a president should recognize, as members of the United States Supreme Court have, that the First Amendment’s establishment and free exercise clauses are co-guarantors of religious liberty. Sometimes the establishment clause is marginalized as being about something other than religious freedom, or minimized as being less important than the free exercise clause. Both of those approaches are mistaken.

Another way to promote both of the First Amendment’s religion clauses is to seek common ground on church-state issues with people of good will. When people search for common ground, they are looking for areas of agreement, even as they continue to disagree on other issues. These areas of agreement may have been hidden by mistrust or miscommunication in the past. Such efforts have produced not only protections for social service beneficiaries during the Obama administration but also guidelines on religious expression in the federal workplace and in public schools during the Clinton administration. We won’t always find common ground, but even the mere process of seeking consensus helps to decrease polarization and build trust.