President Joe Biden yesterday issued an executive order restructuring the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Under President Donald Trump, the office had become a playground for the white Christian nationalists who formed the core of Trump’s base. Biden is promising a markedly different approach, one Americans United welcomes.

Biden has appointed Melissa Rogers to head the office. Many of us at AU have known Rogers for decades. She worked for several years for the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC), a strong ally of Americans United composed of Baptists who hew to the traditional Baptist stand in favor of church-state separation.

Rogers brings a wealth of experience. She ran the faith-based office for several years under President Barack Obama, and she’s also a First Amendment scholar who has taught at Wake Forest University School of Divinity.

In 2019, Rogers authored Faith in American Public Life. In an interview with Church & State about the book, she endorsed church-state separation and lamented that under Trump, vital protections to protect the religious freedom rights of people who use social services had been stripped away; Rogers expressed hope that a future president would restore them.

That time has come, and with Rogers at the helm of the faith-based office, we’re confident that those protections can and will be restored. Rogers will also serve as a senior advisor on faith and public policy on the Domestic Policy Council, the White House arm that oversees the implementation of Biden's domestic policy agenda. Rogers' presence on this body is a sign that the Biden administration intends to take these issues seriously. 

More good news is found in a fact sheet issued by the administration yesterday, in which the Biden administration embraces America’s religious and philosophical diversity. That’s a sharp break from the Trump administration, which put Paula White, an appalling “prosperity gospel” TV preacher, in charge of the faith-based effort and basically ignored any religious body that wasn’t part of Trump’s base.

The fact sheet reads, “A key commitment of the Partnerships Office is embracing pluralism. At its best, the United States is not only a country with remarkable peace across our religious differences, it is a nation where people of diverse faiths and beliefs regularly make common cause. When Methodists and Muslims, Buddhists and Baptists, Sikhs and Secular Humanists serve together, we strengthen one another and we strengthen America. As part of this commitment, the Partnerships Office will work to protect the right to practice faith without fear, implementing promises President-elect Biden made about safeguarding faith communities that are at risk of discrimination, harassment, and hate-based acts of violence and vandalism.”

It adds, “Fundamental to these goals is respecting our cherished guarantees of church-state separation and freedom for people of all faiths and none, as the executive order notes. The Partnerships Office, for example, will not prefer one faith over another or favor religious over secular organizations. Instead, it will work with every willing partner to promote the common good, including those who have differences with the Administration.”

This administration calls church-state separation a “cherished” principle and acknowledges our right to believe or not as we see fit. What a refreshing change!

In a media statement issued yesterday, Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United, welcomed Rogers’ appointment, remarking, “Rogers’ mastery of church-state law and policy and her track record of finding shared values make her exceedingly qualified. When she served in the Obama administration, Rogers successfully worked with people across faiths and the nonreligious to adopt policies that protect the religious freedom of people who use federally funded social services.”

Long-time supporters know that Americans United has never been a fan of “faith-based” initiatives. But the federal effort, which stretches back to the era of President Bill Clinton, is well established in the White House now, and if we must have it, the office should be led by someone who supports church-state separation – and now it will be.

As Rachel noted in her press statement, Rogers and her team will have a lot to do. The Trump administration spent four years promoting policies that misused religious freedom to sanction discrimination, deny access to health care and require taxpayers to fund religion.

Job one will be fixing that warped definition of religious freedom and getting these dangerous policies off the books. Americans United looks forward to helping Rogers do just that.