Faith-Based Changes at White HouseMarch 13, 2013
Today the White House announced a new director had been selected to lead the White Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships (OFBNP). Melissa Rogers, Director of Wake Forest Divinity School's Center for Religion and Public Affairs, will lead the faith-based office that started under George W. Bush and was expanded under Barack Obama. Rogers is a church-state expert who previously served as General Counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC). Rogers has advised the OFBNP in the past and has publicly criticized both the Bush and Obama administrations for using the faith-based office to blur the line between church and state. Her selection is therefore a fascinating one that could really change the OFBNP. It will be nice to have an expert who represents church-state separation in a historic Baptist sense. I also think Rogers is a great pick since she provided the back-cover endorsement for my book on religious rhetoric in presidential campaigns (Presidential Campaign Rhetoric in an Age of Confessional Politics)!
Rogers should bring quite a shift from the previous OFBNP Director, Joshua DuBois. After leading the organization since Obama took office in 2009, DuBois left last month. DuBois, who previously led Obama's faith-based outreach during the 2008 campaign, brought a more political - and even partisan - edge to the position than I expect Rogers will bring. In many ways, DuBois followed the model shaped by directors during Bush's presidency. Additionally, as I noted in an Ethics Daily article last year about the Democratic National Convention's faith outreach, some faith leaders of various denominations complained about DuBois for a lack of communication as well as a lack of understanding about various faith groups. Rogers comes with a much more nuanced understanding of religion and politics. As J. Brent Walker, Executive Director of the BJC said in his statement on the selection of Rogers: "Her leadership in the church-state field - as the BJC's general counsel and as chair of the task force charged with reforming the office - has made her the perfect choice to fill this important position in the Obama administration. ... Melissa possesses a keen understanding of the First Amendment's religion clauses and is sensitive to practical issues of their application." It will be interesting to see the continuing transformation of the White Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.