WASHINGTON—Melissa Rogers, the director of Wake Forest University’s Center for Religion and Public Affairs and a senior fellow with The Brookings Institution, was named by the White House on Wednesday to lead President Barack Obama’s Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
The director’s job makes Rogers the point person for the Obama administration’s outreach to religious groups. Conservative religious leaders contacted by WORLD mostly praised the selection of a religious academic who is known as an expert on church-state issues.
“I think it is a good choice for religious freedom and for faith-based service,” said Stanley Carlson-Thies, founder and president of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance. “Melissa has long been a strong advocate of protecting the rights of religious organizations. It’s a strong choice for a potentially very important position as the federal government impinges on all kinds of religious issues.”
Barrett Duke, of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said Rogers would be an experienced voice inside the administration on religious freedom issues.
“I find her to be very fair-minded,” Duke said. “She will approach her job by reaching out to all faith groups and providing them access to government funding on an equal playing filed.”
In addition to her posts at Wake Forest and Brookings, Rogers also served as general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
She replaces Joshua DuBois, who resigned in January after leading the faith-based office for the first four years of Obama’s presidency. Dubois, 30, will write a devotional book using the Scripture meditations he emailed to Obama daily during the last four years. The Pentecostal minister also plans to teach faith courses at New York University.
After the 2008 election, Obama tapped the then 26-year-old DuBois, who was his religious affairs director during the campaign, to head the office that President George W. Bush began in 2001. Originally created to foster coordination between the White House and faith-based groups on community projects, the office’s role changed under Obama.
“It mainly has helped the Obama administration accomplish its various policy goals in coordination with religious groups,” Duke said.
In the process, the office could not prevent rising tensions between the administration and conservative religious groups. Those include an ongoing clash between the White House and religious organizations, including the Catholic Church, over the contraceptive mandate found in the new healthcare law.
With Rogers now at the helm, many faith-group leaders will be watching to see if the role of the office will morph again or if it will remain a vehicle to rally religious community support for the president’s agenda. Rogers’ academic background gives observers like Duke and Carlson-Thies hope that the campaign-like tendencies of the office will be tamped down.
Democrats pushed for a more senior and more liberal replacement for DuBois. Rogers has a longer resume than DuBois did four years ago. But she does not have a reputation of overt bias toward one political party.
Rogers, a Baptist, co-authored a book in 2008 on religious freedom and the Supreme Court. She enjoys long-standing connections with religious leaders who may help her navigate the ongoing battles over the contraceptive mandate and protecting the ability of faith-groups to hire based on shared religious beliefs.
This is not her first connection with Obama’s White House. In 2009, she served as the chair of Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The panel of faith leaders from different religious and political backgrounds debated such issues as religious hiring and if faith-based organizations receiving federal funds could display religious icons.
The council adopted 43 recommendations concerning the relationship between the federal government and the religious community. Obama issued an executive order commending the council and its work, but the council and its recommendations soon disappeared from the public eye. Obama has not named a new council.
Roger’s time chairing Obama’s council and other experiences throughout her career have garnered respect for her across the political spectrum. Rogers, who has degrees from Baylor University and the University of Pennsylvania Law School, recently led the publication of Religious Expression in American Public Life: A Joint Statement of Current Law. That publication brought together a wide-ranging group of leaders from the political right and left. The Interfaith Alliance, which does not support giving federal dollars to faith-based groups that hire based on shared beliefs, also praised the selection of Rogers.
“I saw the benefits of Melissa Rogers’ wisdom, skill, and leadership among diverse traditions and differing points of view,” said the Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, the alliance’s president, in a statement concerning his time working with Rogers on Obama’s faith council.