A few minutes ago we posted Michael Wear’s criticism of Donald Trump for his decision not to hold an Easter Prayer Breakfast this year.
Melissa Rogers, who ran Barack Obama’s Office of Faith-Based & Neighborhood Partnerships from 2013-2017, has a different take.
Here is a taste of her post at Medium:
These are legitimate questions about the Trump presidency, and we need to keep asking them. Other aspects of the discussion, however, are troubling, partially because they jeopardize our country’s longstanding commitment to religious freedom.
One disturbing aspect of the discussion is an insistence that each president must do every religious thing — personally and policy-wise — that the previous president did. For example, in 2010 President Obama started a tradition of holding an Easter Prayer Breakfast at the White House. He spoke briefly at this annual gathering, including remarks about his beliefs as a Christian, while a minister offered reflections. I attended that breakfast before I served on the White House staff and subsequently I helped host it. These events were truly meaningful to President Obama and everyone who participated. My favorite memories include the transporting songs of gospel choirs and call-and-response preaching in storied rooms of the White House.
Some are now criticizing President Trump for failing to have an Easter Prayer Breakfast. I believe this is wrong-headed. To be clear, I believe all presidents should reach out to religious communities, just as they reach out to a wide range of other communities. But demanding that each president repeat the same religious activities of the previous president could create an informal religious test for public office, which would be inconsistent with the spirit of the Constitution. It could also turn meaningful events into rote rituals and thwart a president’s genuine expression of faith. No one should presume to dictate how a president practices his or her faith. Rather than setting up box-checking exercises, we should let presidents make thoughtful choices about how they discuss faith and relate to religious communities.
Likewise, even though I led the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships from 2013–2017, an office President Trump has yet to staff, I believe we should not insist that Trump have such an office just to have it. I’m proud of the work we did to serve people in need through a variety of partnerships with faith-based and secular organizations. But I also know that, if the office is not set on a strong foundation, it can do more harm than good. For example, if the office does not welcome all faiths, or if it prefers some faiths over others, it will be a blight on our tradition of religious freedom. If it instructs, rather than invites, religious communities to participate in its work or the work of the broader administration, it will undermine the separation of church and state. And if the office were to promote religion, rather than the common good, it would distort faith, usurp the jobs of religious leaders and organizations, and violate the consciences of all Americans. In short, it would be better not to have such an office than to have an office that is not committed to principles like these.
Also, some are using the term “secular” as a slur. We should not go down that path. Just as an officeholder is not necessarily a good leader simply because he or she is personally religious, an officeholder is not necessarily a bad leader because he or she is not religious or does not practice his or her faith in conventional ways. Let’s not create tests that would deprive us of the leadership of a future Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln.