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Book: 'Faith In American Public Life'


Religious freedom, while a central part of America's Constitution, is currently under threat. That's one of the arguments in a new book entitled "Faith In American Public Life" by Melissa Rogers. And she knows quite a bit about the topic. She served as special assistant to President Barack Obama and executive director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. According to Rogers, fear-mongering and discrimination pose a threat to America's religious pluralism. Here to tell us more is Melissa Rogers.

Welcome to the program.

MELISSA ROGERS: Thank you so much.

FADEL: So why don't we start with, basically, the backbone of your book? You have a lot of respect for people of all faith backgrounds. That's clear. And you talk about how this is really a central value of this country. But your book also has a sense of urgency and argument that this moment is a moment where pluralism and religious protections are under threat in the U.S. Why?

ROGERS: Yeah. Unfortunately, I think we face a situation right now where some people can't practice their faith without fear in the United States of America. And that to me is a very serious and urgent problem. We have rising hostility and hate crimes against people of certain faiths. And the United States has always prided itself on being a place for people of all religions and of no religion and a place where we can not only peacefully coexist - we can actually cooperate and accomplish great things together.

So it's not only a situation where we have at present a threat to people's lives. We also have a threat, I think, to the fabric of our system that has encouraged people to come together across our differences of a religious nature and work together. People can't do that if they're fearful that they are going to be attacked or maligned or discriminated against simply because of the way that they practice their faith.

FADEL: What is causing that fear and that divisiveness, that fear-mongering?

ROGERS: Yeah. Well, I think one thing that's not helping at all is when we have government officials fear-monger on factors like faith, race and ethnicity, when we have them use dehumanizing language. And, you know, I think, unfortunately, President Trump has made that situation much worse by engaging in that kind of rhetoric.

FADEL: Now, your book, you spend a lot of time talking about your time under the Obama administration...

ROGERS: Right.

FADEL: ...Of course. But it's also quite critical of this administration in its policy and in its language that it uses. Do you worry that people will try to dismiss it based on your history?

ROGERS: You know, I think what we see is coming up through the Obama administration looking back, for example, to the Bush administration. And let me just cite two examples. In the book, I talk about President Obama's visit to a mosque. I also talk about President George W. Bush's visit to a mosque after the Sept. 11 attacks, which I think was a great thing that he did. And George W. Bush sent a message to the nation about religious freedom that was very important that probably saved lives.

So I think my argument in the book is not that this is a partisan issue. It isn't a partisan issue, and I think it has not been in our past. Issues of protecting religious freedom for all people - that has been a bipartisan issue in our past. And leaders like President Obama as well as George W. Bush have taken action to protect that very central value to the American experience. So I think what we're seeing now from, you know, President Trump is an aberration from that bipartisan tradition.

Also, just to hit on another topic, we've seen a very strong bipartisan tradition through the years about welcoming refugees to our country and saying that, you know, the nation can be both secure and compassionate and that we, frankly, have a moral obligation to do so given the crisis in our country and around the world. Around the world, we have a crisis of people who are having - being forced out of their own homelands and need a safe place to stay. And I think what we've seen is a bipartisan tradition of welcoming refugees to our country - of course, with appropriate security checks. And that's the kind of thing that we also see the current administration breaking with.

So it is not, you know, something that is a partisan issue. It has been a bipartisan area of agreement, I think, until recently. And I would like us to get back to that bipartisan common ground.

FADEL: You know, the other thing that you spent some time on in your book was about religious exemptions and accommodations. And that's a lot in the news these days...

ROGERS: Right.

FADEL: ...Especially when it comes to LGBTQ Americans. And so can you talk a little bit about the use of that and your concerns around that?

ROGERS: So in that arena, what we have are claims being raised for religious liberty on the one side and claims being raised for LGBT equality on the other. And so these come into conflict sometimes. And so how do you resolve them? I think we have to look at the context. And let me give you just a couple of examples, if I can. There are federal contracting rules that prohibit federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in employment with the use of these government taxpayer funds.

And some, including the Trump administration, believe there should be a very wide religious exemption for federal contractors that claim a religious objection to those nondiscrimination requirements. My view is that when you have taxpayer funds and nondiscrimination rules that apply to the use of those funds, then what you ought generally to do is uniformly apply those rules, not create religious - you know, these yawning religious exemptions from them.

FADEL: So what do you want people to walk away from, if there was one sort of thought that you want people to walk away from with your - from your book? What would that be?

ROGERS: I would hope that people would take it upon themselves to act on the best American traditions and stand up for people of different religions, of different beliefs in our country right now - to view it not as something that is just the responsibility of elected leaders but that is a requirement of citizenship - that we stand up for one another at this crucial point in American history and live out the true promise of our constitutional guarantees.

FADEL: That's Melissa Rogers. Her book "Faith In American Public Life" is out now.

Thanks so much for joining us.

ROGERS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF EL TEN ELEVEN'S "MY ONLY SWERVING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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