The four participants sit on a panel in conversation with each other

FEATURE

Experts Explore Religious Freedom, Christians in American Public Life

By: Henry Brill

January 23, 2020

The Berkley Center welcomed church-state scholar Melissa Rogers for a conversation on Christianity in American society.

Rogers was joined by Ted Olsen, editorial director of Christianity Today, and Rev. Adam R. Taylor, executive director of Sojourners, to discuss the complex relationship between government and religion. 

E. J. Dionne, a senior research fellow at the Berkley Center and a University Professor at Georgetown, led the discussion. 

Panelists considered topics related to faith engagement including religious freedom, clergy in political life, and rising Christian nationalism by using Rogers’ new book, Faith in American Public Life, as a springboard for discussion. 

Polarization of Religious Freedom

The panel opened with a timely look into the place of religious freedom in American political life, as once bipartisan issues have become subject to division along party lines. 

“How have we gone from religious liberty as what ought to be a unifying cause for all of us into religious liberty used as an ideological slogan to speak often for a rather narrow political agenda?” asked Dionne. 

Rogers responded by describing how lawmakers created consensus on religious freedom at the beginning of her career in public service, with both Democrats and Republicans supporting landmark pieces of legislation such as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. 

“We could agree on what the law was, and there was enough goodwill that we were all willing to sit down at the table and work together,” said Rogers, who explained how secular and faith-based groups often worked together on religious freedom policy in the 1990s. 

More recently, however, religious liberty has become a more polarized policy issue, entangled in larger debates on LGBTQ and reproductive rights. 

“Sometimes religious freedom battles have looked like battering rams against LGBTQ equality, against other parts of human dignity,” said Rogers. “We need to respect everyone and find ways for religious liberty rights to co-exist with other key civil and human rights.” 

​Faith in American Politics

Debates on religious freedom overlay broader concerns over the role and responsibility of faith leaders in the American public square. 

Olsen, whose magazine recently published an editorial calling for the removal of President Donald Trump, noted how American Christianity—much like U.S. politics—has become polarized, remarking, 

There is a shift from where can we find common ground to how can I show that I am more righteous than those I oppose: a ‘love your enemy’ to an ‘own your enemy’ approach.

Divisions within the Christian community have complicated the involvement of faith leaders in American political discourse. But panelists highlighted the importance of political action grounded in religion.

“We can’t reduce our faith to politics, but we also cannot be apolitical,” said Taylor, citing the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “We have to be politically engaged because to not be engaged is to be complicit.” 

Faith engagement in political life should not be confined to election day, according to the panel. “One of my laments is how much the Christian political conversation has been reduced to how are you going to vote,” shared Olsen. 

Taylor agreed, suggesting how religious values should play a larger role in American public life. “I think we really do need a moral vision that is capable of uniting the majority of Americans around some shared and core civil and religious values,” he said. 

Finding Common Ground

Panelists also emphasized that faith groups should work across partisan and religious lines to foster action on social issues. 

Rogers, who served under the Obama administration, underscored how religious communities could serve as a bridge between the government and those who need support. “The bullseye is serving people in need, that is the mission,” she said. “The means is working with faith-based and community organizations to do so.” 

It is through finding common ground that faith groups can continue to provide social support and protect religious liberty, according to Rogers. She remains hopeful for the future of interfaith collaboration, remarking,

This is how we’re going to get back to a better place: If we continue those relationships, extend grace to one another, realizing being opponents on one issue does not make us enemies; it makes us potential collaborators on something else.