This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.
On the heels of a Capitol Insurrection sporting a preponderance of Christian nationalist flags, it might be hard for some Americans to see why President Biden’s Executive Order creating a White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships is cause for celebration and not concern.
Indeed, religious extremists who hijack faith traditions outshout the majority’s belief in neighborly compassion. Extremists who support autocratic power arrangements often gather more attention than the majority of religious communities whose quiet, off-camera compassion, mercy and love for justice help fuel the engines of democracy. Whether it is Sister Norma Pimental running a respite center for migrants; or Adventist Pastor Jason Ridley addressing police violence in Columbus Ohio; or Imam Dawud Walid in Detroit, religious communities regularly design solutions to the country’s democratic failures.
The expertise of such leaders is rooted in firsthand encounters with problems and innovative solutions rooted in moral vision and human dignity — rather than realpolitik. While extremists get heightened attention, religious communities often are the forces pushing society toward a world where all human beings can flourish—often confronting the ideologies of greed or white supremacy that scoff at such visions and justify exploitation. Their tenacity and moral authority encourage fellow citizens toward their higher angels.
The differences between the Biden and Trump faith-based offices highlight how faith can harm a democracy on life support and how faith can help heal it. I know; I had a front row seat. Biden’s faith engagement is modeled on President Obama’s Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships which assembled three advisory councils. I chaired the third council from 2015 to 2016. The Biden administration will be well-equipped to dismantle efforts to use “religious freedom” as a sword rather than a shield. Melissa Rogers — a Baptist and constitutional legal scholar — has been tapped to direct the Biden faith-based Office as she did under Obama, and will also have a seat on the Domestic Policy Council.
In addition, Obama, and now Biden, established official faith outreach offices early in their administrations to include a wide range of American religious traditions. With an early informal circle of mostly white Christian advisors, Trump didn’t bother to formalize faith engagement until the controversial prosperity preacher Paula White was appointed to staff his faith initiative. In contrast, I found myself seated among the Salvation Army (evangelical); Covenant House (Catholic); Sikh, Hindu, Bahai, Jewish and Muslim thought leaders; and the first transgender woman to be appointed to a faith advisory council.
Second, while Trump’s approach was to surround himself almost exclusively with evangelical supporters who put up with his hate speech and autocratic behavior, Biden’s faith engagement is not about coalescing political power. Biden has outlined a robust agenda for the White House Faith Office—an agenda developed in consultation with faith leaders. With inclusive multifaith engagement and renewed effective partnerships to address the big challenges ahead, the office will work with faith communities to address COVID-19, systemic racism, increased mobility for disadvantaged communities whether immigrants or rural areas, strengthen pluralism, and advance international development. Similarly, Obama’s faith-based office worked through advisory councils to tackle the ambitious agendas of that time, including economic recovery (post-housing crisis), interreligious cooperation and climate change, to modern day slavery, ending poverty and addressing economic inequality. President Obama even expected us to challenge him and told us it was our responsibility to do so. We were as ready to challenge as we were to cheer and help implement his socially just policies.
Third, modeling religious pluralism, Biden’s faith-based initiative can restore religious freedom and pluralism as a bedrock of American democracy, which would offer a religion-friendly rebuke of Christian nationalism. Progressives are understandably haunted by far-right religious attacks on LGBTQ and reproductive rights and often fear White House faith engagement might compromise the important First Amendment protection of separation of church and state. But who better to disrupt efforts to maintain white Christian hegemony than diverse religious leaders with expertise in, and commitment to, pluralism?
Religious leaders in fact have a long history of challenging and working with administrations predating these formal offices and advisory bodies. Faith-based movements made the moral case for the New Deal under FDR, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the United Nations where Eleanor Roosevelt was a key architect. Black clergy led the Civil Rights movement, started under President Eisenhower through the Kennedy administration and resulted in landmark law under President Johnson. Jews and Catholics have played critical roles in labor movements, beginning under President Grover Cleveland.
In the Biden administration, we will see religious leaders and communities rolling up their sleeves and offering expertise — like that of scientists, lawyers and economists — that is critical to the success of building an American democracy that has yet to realize its aspirations of full equality for all its citizens. Rest assured, the often-published photo of Trump’s arms folded in a strongman pose and surrounded by sycophantic Christian leaders, heads bowed, eyes closed in prayer, will not be a feature of this administration.
Rev. Jennifer Butler is CEO of Faith in Public Life, author of Who Stole My Bible?, and an Auburn Senior Fellow. She is the former chair of the Obama White House Council on Faith and Neighborhood Partnerships.