This got a bit lost last week amid the other big religious news, but I’m enormously pleased that “Church-state expert Melissa Rogers will be the new director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.”
This is a Good Thing. As Adelle Banks reports for RNS:
Rogers is already well-acquainted with the office she will direct. She chaired the office’s first advisory council and spearheaded its work to reform the office. In 2010, President Obama signed an executive order reflecting recommendations from the council that called for greater transparency and clearer rules for religious groups that receive federal grants.
In other words, when the office ran into trouble negotiating all the church-state issues its existence creates, they turned to an expert for advice. And now they’ve put her in charge.
Rogers comes to the post after serving in several positions at the intersection of religion and public policy. Most recently she has directed Wake Forest Divinity School’s Center for Religion and Public Affairs and been a nonresident senior fellow at Washington’s Brookings Institution.
She previously was executive director of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, a board member of Public Religion Research Institute and the general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs.
J. Brent Walker, director of the Baptist Joint Committee, called her a “perfect choice’’ for the position.
The BJC is kind of the Baptist ACLU, focused mainly on the core Baptist belief of the separation of church and state. It’s a “joint committee” in that the agency is supported by a host of different Baptist groups (we Baptists don’t technically have “denominations” — or, at least, we didn’t used to). After the fundie takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, the SBC withdrew its support for the BJC, but a bunch of Southern Baptist state conventions still support that work.
I provide that background just so you don’t see that word “Baptist” and mistake it for a religious right group. The BJC is Baptist in the Roger Williams sense, not in the Al Mohler sense. And Melissa Rogers is a Baptist in the Roger Williams sense too.
Sarah Posner has a round-up of some of the praise for Rogers. Maggie Garrett of Americans United for Separation of Church and State hails Rogers as “extremely well-versed in the constitutional issues surrounding the Faith-Based Initiative.”
Dena Sher of the ACLU says:
Melissa has worked for years to protect religious liberty and uphold the Constitution. She will be strongly committed to the Office’s goal of ensuring that government partnerships with religious organizations uphold our laws and our values.
I know of no individual better suited to oversee this important endeavor, with sensitivity to the competing views and priorities at play, and with great integrity, than Melissa Rogers.
Mark Silk calls Rogers “a shot in the arm” for the office:
It would be hard to imagine a better choice to head the White Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships than Melissa Rogers. Since her days as general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee, Rogers has been one of Washington’s leading players in the church-state arena — a traditional Baptist separationist with a talent for forging consensus.
He cites, and links to, a 2010 column in which Rogers gives a “mixed verdict” on the office’s record on church-state separation. That piece gives a good overview of Rogers’ Baptist/separationist perspective — and illustrates why I’m also very pleased with this choice.
John Fea, author of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?, gives his thumbs up.
Hemant Mehta rounds up additional positive reactions from Americans United, the American Humanist Association, and other groups.
Vorjack digs into some of Rogers’ academic writing, and is pleased with what it shows.
The Anti-Defamation League says Rogers “has been a great and articulate champion for religious liberty” and that “The President has chosen wisely and well.”
The Rev. Joel Hunter and Rabbi David Saperstein team up to say:
Without robust religious liberty, democracy is weakened; that society is better off and the needs of the weak and the vulnerable can best be addressed when government and religion can partner effectively and within constitutional constraints; that America with its magnificent tapestry of religious identities and expression is one of the glories of America.
And we agree that no one with whom we have worked over our decades of public service to the religious community is more committed to this vision and more skilled at implementing it than Melissa Rogers.