Ethics & Public Policy Center

Religion and Polarized Politics: An Interview with Melissa Rogers and Peter Wehner

Published in Religion & Politics on March 12, 2019

The 2016 election of President Trump highlighted the country’s state of political polarization. Many argue that people have retreated into their respective ideological corners: Democrat and Republican, secular and religious, rural and urban. On February 12, Washington University in St. Louis welcomed two former White House officials to discuss how religion has played a part in contributing to the country’s political climate, for better or for worse. The event, “Religion and Polarized Politics,” was co-sponsored by the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, which publishes this journal.

Both Melissa Rogers and Peter Wehner have years of experience working at the intersection of religion and politics. Rogers served as a special assistant to President Obama and as executive director of the administration’s Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. She is currently a visiting professor at Wake Forest University Divinity School and holds a nonresident fellowship at the Brookings Institution. Her latest book, which will be about navigating threats to religious liberty, is coming out later this year.

Wehner served in the administrations of both Presidents Bush and President Reagan. He is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a think tank dedicated to “applying the Judeo-Christian moral tradition to critical issues of public policy.” A political commentator and columnist, his new book, The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump, will be out this spring.

During their visit, Wehner and Rogers sat down with R&P’s Joshua Leopold for an interview. The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.


R&P: Given that the theme of tonight’s event is “religion and polarized politics,” what do you make of the nation’s current political polarization and how does religion play into it?

Peter Wehner: The country is deeply polarized. All the survey data indicates it. This is a trend that predates Donald Trump, but he’s accelerated it and made it worse. The reasons for polarization are multi-varied. There’s the increasing polarization of parties, increasing polarization of the public, and the urban-rural divide. There’s an increase in antipathy that people feel toward folks in the other party because they’re able to chart how much anger and antipathy that individuals in one party feel toward another. That’s definitely up. Then you have social media, which has made all these problems worse. So, we’re living in a polarized time. You need perspective. We’ve had more polarized times. We’ve had more dangerous times in American history. The Civil War is one; the late 1960s is another. But this is a difficult moment politically in terms of our civic culture.

In terms of how religion is playing into it, I would say that religion as a general matter is making things worse, not better. And I say that with regret, as a person of the Christian faith. I think Christianity ought to be a means for reconciliation and repair and greater empathy and greater understanding. That doesn’t mean people of faith don’t have deep and strong convictions on important matters of justice. But you would hope that religion would be a force for reconciliation. I think that’s not happening, and I think what’s increasingly happening is that religion is being weaponized in politics. And people of faith—and I can speak best for the Christian faith because that’s the world that I know because of my own faith commitments—is subordinated to partisan politics.

What happens is people take their ideologies and they sacralize them, they baptize them, and they think that these views and these approaches have somehow been ordained by God. You know, religion is complicated. It’s got a complicated history in the world and in the United States. Sometimes it’s a force for good; sometimes it’s a force for bad. That isn’t to say that there aren’t individual voices and institutions and figures who are doing good things. Certainly, people of faith are doing good things in their daily lives. But I’d say, right now, faith is making things worse rather than better.

Melissa Rogers: Just to add an example to that, I think we’ve seen on the political scene generally—people have written books about this like The Big Sort—that people tend to be sorted into communities based on their political beliefs or policy views. And, with specific reference to religion, we’ve seen that happen to some degree in churches and other congregations as well. Whereas in the past, it would have been more likely that you would be sitting in the pew with someone who wouldn’t share your political views or policy views, that’s less likely today. There are fewer purple churches and more red and blue churches. The effect that has both in other settings and in religious settings is that when people are relating to one another and in a shared community, like a congregation, and they have different views, then I think they each tend to moderate one another. But when people are together and have the same views, sometimes there’s a race to the edges. And so, I think that has had an effect on both our political scene generally and our religious communities, and it’s a struggle to try to ensure—both within the government and within politics and in the religious sphere—that we actually preserve and protect places where people of different views can form relationships and cooperate. That’s a big challenge for us right now within the political and religious sphere.

R&P: Melissa, you served in the Obama administration as the executive director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Can you talk a bit about how faith relationships and issues of faith shaped the Obama administration and your time there?

MR: President Obama is a committed Christian and got his start working as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago out of a Catholic church there. What he was working on was empowering people in the community to advocate for greater economic opportunity and safety in the neighborhoods that they lived in. So, it was quite natural for him to want to include religious organizations and leaders and communities in the work that we did at the White House.

We were talking earlier this morning about the fact that it’s fairly unusual for a president to keep a signature office of his predecessor, and it’s especially unusual for a president of a different party to do so. But that’s what President Obama did with President Bush’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, which he renamed, and he put his own stamp on its policies.

Connecting it back to the last question, one of the things that we knew was that we could use that office to try to build bridges with people. There would be people who might not agree with some of the top policy priorities of the president, but they would agree that we should feed hungry children. My overture to everyone was to say: Let’s find at least one thing we can agree on, and let’s build a partnership around that, even if you think you don’t agree with us on anything else. Of course, that never turned out to be true. Once we found one thing, we found more and more. So, that was a great part of the work.

Then President Obama also understands, as a person who taught constitutional law, the importance of the First Amendment—its religious liberty guarantees—and knew that we needed to treat those issues seriously, and so that’s another part of the work that we did. We were not always able to come up with the answer that would please everybody, but President Obama was insistent on us paying close attention to those issues because they are issues that people care about, and they go to the foundation of our country in terms of our commitment to religious liberty. I would just add a couple of other things. He was also very interested in us trying to find common ground on difficult issues, so he established an Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and intentionally put people on there who didn’t vote for him and didn’t agree with him about a lot of issues. We used that body as one way to try to seek common ground. Everybody knew that they weren’t going to get everything they wanted, but we could come together around some things where there was agreement.

R&P: Peter, you have served in three Republican presidential administrations. Recently, you wrote that you have left the Republican Party in part because of its alliance with President Trump. What have you learned since becoming, as you say, “politically homeless”?

PW: I think what you gain with something like that is probably some critical distance and some detachment. And I hope I’ve gained some of that. Any time you’re part of a team, part of a tribe, that’s going to shape your perception—the way you see events unfold, the way you see people on your own team and your own tribe, and how you see people on the other team and tribe. My guess is that, if you ask most people that knew me when I was in the Republican Party and acted in it—I’ve been a Republican pretty much my entire adult life; my first vote was for Ronald Reagan for president—I don’t think people would have described me as being a particularly partisan person. Even as a writer, after I got out of the Bush administration, I went against some conservative orthodoxy. I wrote relatively early about the importance of climate change as an issue. I would criticize people like Newt Gingrich for having crossed certain lines. But I think I tended to give people on my side too much of the benefit of the doubt, and not enough of the benefit of the doubt to other people. I think I’m better able to listen to arguments from people that in the past I might not have.

I’m not critical of anybody who is in a political party. I think admirable people are in both parties. And I’m not advocating that other people leave the Republican Party for the same reasons I did. Mine was simply an autobiographical description of where I am and how I see Trump and how I feel about it. And I also want to say that it’s often said that people who are in political parties put party over country. That’s not my experience, at least not knowingly so. It’s a popular phrase, but I think it’s often an imprecise phrase. And it’s often used against people who are doing something you don’t agree with. The way it works, of course, in practice is you’re part of a political party because you think it is right on most of the large issues facing the country and so you think that advancing the good of the party is advancing the good of the country. And so, I don’t think it’s as cynical as a lot of people do.

I should say one other thing, which is I’ve always considered myself a conservative before I’ve considered myself a Republican. People get involved in politics for different reasons. Some people like running campaigns. Some people like the strategy and tactics of politics. I was somebody who was drawn to politics more because of the ideas in politics. That’s just the way I’m hard-wired. For me, the Republican Party was the political vehicle to advance causes that I cared about, and conservatism. I’m still a conservative. I just don’t identify with the Republican Party right now because it’s the party of Trump. Just like I’m a Christian, even though I don’t identify so much anymore with the term evangelical, which I had for many years. I’m not precluding the possibility of going back to the Republican Party if it changes, and if I do, I hope I bring with it the detachment and distance that I’ve undoubtedly gained by being apart from it. But whether I do or not, I feel like what I did was right, given where I am.

R&P: Both of you have been critical of Trump’s brand of Christianity, or lack thereof. What do you think is next for the white Christians who have remained so loyal to Trump, and acted as his key base?

PW: In terms of Trump and Christianity, one of the reasons I’m critical of him is that I don’t think he embodies a Christian ethic. I think he embodies a Nietzschean ethic. I think it’s the will to power, might makes right. The idea that the Republican party or that individual Christians would enthusiastically embrace Trump strikes me as problematic. That isn’t to say that I don’t understand the argument of why conservative Christians voted for Trump over Hillary Clinton. I understand that argument, which is that they think that he would promote policies that would advance the good of the country in ways that she would not. I didn’t agree with that assessment. I didn’t vote for either one of them, but I understood it.

What I think is much more disturbing is this enthusiastic embrace of Trump. That I think is inexcusable. Because Christians, above all, ought to be people who understand that they’re citizens of a different city. There ought to be some distance from politics and the ability to speak truth to power. It’s fine for Christians to praise particular court appointments and particular policies, but when Trump engages in an effort to annihilate truth, when he engages in dehumanizing tactics, when he is cruel, when he unleashes his cascade of lies, they ought to speak to that too and unfortunately a lot of prominent white evangelical Christians don’t. Some do, but in terms of the most prominent ones, as general matter, they don’t. What will happen to the white evangelical movement and Christianity in light of Trump, I think it’s going to discredit itself. I think it’s in the process of discrediting itself. I think there’s a younger generation of Christians who are looking at what’s unfolding and they’re horrified by it, and they probably are determined never to replicate it. So that may be, in an odd way, a good effect of this horror show. But I think that the Christian witness is being harmed by this.

I think the hypocrisy is so obvious that I can’t believe that the champions of Trump don’t see it. I’m old enough to remember the stance of conservative evangelicals toward Bill Clinton when they argued that morality was central to political leadership and that a president had radiating effects on the wider culture. And they beat Bill Clinton upside the head with a moral club. And now that the situation is reversed and it’s a Republican president who has ethical and moral problems even beyond what Bill Clinton did, and they not only don’t call him out on that, but in many cases they’re a sword and his shield, his defender. People look at that and say: This is just a game, this is just a power play. And religion is being used as an instrument to advance partisan causes, and that’s not what faith is about. And if that’s what you’re representing it to be to the rest of the world, then you’re doing a huge disservice.

MR: I would agree. I think that the double standard issue is just so plain, and it’s very painful to see that happen. As a Christian myself, I cringe at seeing such a blatant use of a double standard, a failure to hold President Trump to account for things that are clearly conflicting with Christian values. I think that, at its best, religion in America has been able to, as Martin Luther King said, be the conscience of the state. And when you act in this way, embracing double standards, you lose a claim to being the conscience of the state. They’re forfeiting, of their own accord, the ability to serve in some of the highest traditions of religion, and it’s not just in the United States but, broadly speaking, across the world. So, it’s a problem. And it’s a problem that can trip up any religious individual. Everybody has to be on guard. I think what we’re seeing now is a particularly troubling exercise of faith serving as a lap dog for a particular political leader, and hopefully it serves as a cautionary tale for everyone.

R&P: To look at the other side of things, many people have underscored a recent resurgence of the religious left, led by figures like the Rev. William Barber. How do each of you think this will influence the Democratic Party and the country, if at all?

MR: There have always been voices of faith on the left, or not the right, but on the other side of the spectrum. I think it’s a good thing when its understood that religion isn’t the property of the right or the left. It’s spread across the spectrum. Hopefully, people on the left and right who are religious leaders can speak out in a way that’s consistent with their conscience and hold people accountable, including people to whom they are mostly favorably disposed on policy issues. But it remains to be seen what’s going to happen. I think that there is some interest. You hear some of the candidates who are already out for president on the Democratic side, talking probably more about their faith since they’ve announced in the last couple of weeks than some candidates did throughout the whole race [in past elections]. Of course, one would never want a candidate to do that in an inauthentic way, both because it’s wrong—and I believe that as both a Christian and as an American—and also because people can tell that it’s inauthentic. But I think when people can demonstrate that their values are playing a role in their decision-making, from a faith-based perspective or otherwise, that helps Americans to listen to their stories. But we’ll have to wait to see what happens. I think that I share Pete’s concern about religion becoming weaponized whether it’s on the right or the left. We don’t want that to happen. Certainly, we don’t want—I speak as a progressive—a version of the religious left that’s like the religious right. I don’t think that is a good goal. But if we can have authentic voices on all sides, then that will help to drive home the point that people can be good people of faith and be Democrats or Republicans or Independents.

PW: I’m going to be interested to see how this plays out. Survey data indicate that the Democratic Party is becoming more secular. That doesn’t mean it’s a secular party, but it’s certainly more secular than it’s been in the past. And I’m not sure that it’s been nearly as open to the messages of faith and willing to give respect for hearing faith today, like it was when Bill Clinton ran and even when Barack Obama ran the first time in 2008. I suspect if you ask people like Jim Wallis of Sojourners, John Carr at Georgetown—who are more liberal politically in their views—they would say that the Democratic Party is less accommodating to their message than in the past. But it’s an open question, and we’ll see how it plays out. Some of it frankly depends on whether the progressive voices who are Christians are pro-life or not in their views. If they are pro-life in their views, I don’t think they’re going to get a hearing in the Democratic Party. That issue, the issue of abortion, is close to primus inter pares, the first among equals, on social issues. We saw that [recently] when Andrew Cuomo signed into law what I thought was a horrifying bill on abortion. And not only signed the bill but decided that he would light up the Freedom Tower in pink to celebrate it, which was really sticking a finger into the eye of people who are pro-life. I don’t think you need to go there. But that gives you a sense of the amount of energy that the Democratic Party, and the progressive movement in general, has on this. If you are a person who is pro-life and pro-poor, as the Catholics say, I think that the influence you’re going to have on the Democratic Party is going to be limited because there’s just not room in the modern Democratic Party for people who are pro-life. I hope that changes, and I think that progressive voices who are Christians have something to contribute to the party and can give it a moral frame to speak to these issues.

MR: I think that certainly the parties are far apart on these issues, but I also think that there are people like Nancy Pelosi, who has said we need to continue to welcome pro-life people. So, there are some differences of opinion about that. Also, there are Christians who have a different position on abortion than the anti-abortion/pro-life position. Then, there’s the question of looking at it as law. I think that there is a great difference between the parties on that. I think there is still potential for common ground on reducing the number of unintended pregnancies and abortions when we’re talking about policies—and this is complicated in the Catholic Church but not necessarily always beyond it—in providing and making contraceptive access easier for people. That is something that I think we can get more agreement on. Then, on the issue of reducing the number of abortions, I think there is a lot of common ground, maybe not something that the Democratic Party is doing a great job on, or the Republican Party is doing a great job at pursuing right now, but people who are in the different parties still can come together around that. I think it would be a question of whether those groupings of people—and I’ve been a part of those dialogues in the past—can pressure for more policies along those lines. Because, for instance, quality affordable healthcare, access to quality affordable healthcare, and other supports for pregnant mothers and families have been proven to really reduce the abortion rate. And, I will have to check this, but I think the abortion rate was as low as it’s ever been during the Obama administration. When we’re talking about what might end up reducing the number of abortions, which is a goal I support—it’s a tough area to work on because of the parties’ different positions—but I think there is still a lot of common ground there that can be pursued.

PW: I hope Melissa is right, and she is correct on the number of abortions. The ratio of abortions went down under the Obama administration, which goes to show that presidential policies often don’t have as much effect as you think. Reagan and George H.W. Bush were pro-life and abortion rates were quite high in the late 80s and 90s, and they have gone down steadily since. One thing I’d say on the Democratic Party as a measure of where it is, I don’t think you are going to hear a Democratic nominee or Democratic candidate for president say abortion ought to be safe, legal, and rare; that is the language Bill Clinton used in the 1990s. They don’t use it.

The reason they don’t use it is that Planned Parenthood, which has a tremendous amount of power in the Democratic Party, doesn’t want candidates in the Democratic Party to say abortion should be rare, because their argument is: If you want it to be rare, that means implicitly that there is something problematic about abortion. They don’t believe there is anything problematic about abortion. They may be right or they may be wrong. But they don’t believe it is morally problematic in the least. And that cast of mind and that attitude has gotten stronger, not weaker, in the Democratic Party.

MR: Just to add to that, when you say the policies of Reagan and Bush weren’t successful in reducing the number of abortions, I would say that I do think that President Obama’s policies in promoting access to quality affordable healthcare—I’m not an expert on this, but I think that those policies were actually connected to the reduction of the number of abortions. So sometimes there can be policies that you can see have a direct connection in reducing the number of abortions.

PW: Yeah, and if you look at teen pregnancy rates, they are way, way down.

MR: Yeah. Way down. And that’s something that’s worth paying more attention to than I think that we have. It hasn’t gotten much press, but it should.

R&P: Melissa, I know you wrote a book on religious liberty, but this question is for both of you: In what ways will religious liberty continue to come up in legislation and court cases?

MR: We have a new court. Justice Kavanaugh has replaced Justice Kennedy. I think that we will see some new lines being drawn, likely over time as a result of having a newly constituted Supreme Court. There is one case that is coming up at the Court this term that is a church-state case, but I think over time you’ll see them continuing to take cases and perhaps to change some of the traditional church-state doctrine of the court. That can happen on the free exercise side as well as the Establishment Clause side. One of my concerns there is that I think that some of the traditional doctrine, a good hunk of it really, has been very helpful in protecting not only freedom but faith. I think it’s very helpful when the government does not promote religion because when the government promotes religion, it not only undermines other faiths and beliefs but also it actually distorts the faith that is supported by the government. The government picks and chooses among the beliefs that it endorses. It magnifies some, it diminishes others, and we’re left with a kind of fun-house mirror version of faith. I’m concerned about that both as an American, a lawyer, and as a person of faith. I am a very strong supporter of free exercise, but I also believe there can be overreaching in that area, so I’m going to be watching that as well.

I’m just talking about federal branches of government. In Congress, I think we’ll see some activity perhaps on these issues. One of the big issues right now, both legislatively and in the courts, is religious exemptions, and those often come up in a civil rights context: protection for LGBT people and whether there should be religious exemptions from those laws, and if so, what they should look like. There are various proposals on the Hill dealing with those issues because we do not have very much federal protection for LGBT people right now, so there is interest in extending those protections, and then the question becomes, what kinds of religious exemptions should come along with those protections? You’ve seen the Trump administration do some things that some conservative Christians have liked, in terms of rolling back some of the contraception mandate, or broadening the exceptions in the contraception mandate sphere. And, also providing broader exemptions from LGBT protections, to the extent that they exist, in federal regulations or executive orders. I think we’re going to continue to see a discussion about those things.

Also, it’s a mistake to assume that free exercise matters are only important to the right. One of the interesting things to look at is to look at what the Trump administration has done in response to the request for religious exemptions from the contraception mandate or LGBT protections, and then look at the other side and see what they have done or not done with regard to religious people who provided humanitarian assistance to undocumented immigrants coming across the desert on the southwest border. They have prosecuted people who have left water out, for example, for undocumented immigrants in the southwest border of the United States. And you haven’t heard a peep about religious liberty in that context from the Trump administration. Likewise, they have through eminent domain said they want to take the property of a diocese in Texas that does not want to give up that property because they oppose the border wall. And that is why they would take the land, to actually build the border wall. So you have them making a federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act claim against that kind of thing. There are other things about religious objections to oil pipelines, about religious people asserting their right to take in undocumented immigrants who are at risk of deportation in their congregations—the sanctuary movement if you will. Everybody has to be principled in this area, but one of the concerns I have is that you see the Trump administration seeming to only look with favor upon a certain variety of free exercise claim and turning a blind eye to other free exercise claims. If that’s what we’re doing, that’s not free exercise. That’s favoring one’s political side or favoring certain policy preferences. It has to be protection for conscience writ broadly. All of those things will be things to watch as we move forward.

R&P: Peter, what do you think?

PW: I think Melissa is the expert on it much more than I am, but I would say a couple of brief things about it. One is I agree with Russell Moore, who is a Southern Baptist and has argued that, one of the arguments—not the only argument—to protect the religious liberties of Muslims is so Christians themselves will have protection of their religious liberties. It’s a very bad approach and a very bad look for people on the right who are Christians to attack Muslims, and to try and limit rights that they might have, and then to turn around and say you need to protect our rights. There is seamlessness here that needs to happen. There is probably a lesson in here for conservative Christians, which is when they felt like they were in the majority that it was fine to impose their values on other people, and now that they’re culturally and morally in the minority in some respects, their attitude is live and let live and let us go and do our own thing.

These are complicated issues. You can make abstract arguments that sound persuasive on one side or the other, but of course, laws are often decided when very complicated cases come up, and when you have competing rights—religious liberties versus extending protection of liberties to individuals. Those can be tricky to balance. The history of the United States has generally leaned very much in the direction of religious liberties, to allow churches and religious institutions to live according to their values and traditions, and not have those dictated by the state. I will say that conservative Christians that I know who are quite responsible are worried that in the future religious liberties will be curtailed, and that a quasi-totalitarian impulse on the radical left may increasingly gain influence and power. And if they have political power, that they may want to undermine religious institutions that want to abide by certain traditional beliefs, particularly in the realm of sexual ethics. And if they don’t do that, then they’re going to be knee-capped. That may be an alarmist view, and it may be a concern that’s not realized, but it’s out there. I don’t think that concern is baseless.

MR: I appreciate what Pete said about Russell Moore and others of us who have said that it has to be religious liberty for all or it’s not religious liberty at all. And, of course, President Trump’s call for banning Muslims from the United States continues to reverberate. I also think that the Supreme Court made the wrong decision on the Trump v. Hawaii case involving the travel ban or Muslim ban. And it was particularly set in contrast by another case, the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, where the Court bent over backwards to make sure that they protected the views from hostility going from the government toward, in this case, a conservative Christian and then turned a blind eye to what I thought was far stronger evidence of animus toward a particular religious group emanating from one man in the executive branch—or not just one man, but principally one man. So, that’s a huge concern and I’m glad that he mentioned it.

On the LGBT rights versus religious liberty arguments, I think there is sort of a continuum of space here. On the one side, churches and religiously affiliated institutions operating in society, and then on the other side would be institutions that are religious that are receiving government grants or contracts, institutions that are commercial institutions that are subject to public accommodations laws and civil rights restrictions. When religious organizations get direct aid to perform a service on behalf of the government, those often come with civil rights restrictions. And so, I think that you’re going to answer that question differently, potentially depending on where the particular case arises. There is a lot of discussion about this right now. It is a particularly difficult issue because it involves the clash of religious liberty and other civil liberties and other human rights, and so it’s a wrenching issue. It’s different than some other free exercise issues where there is no significant harm to third parties as a result of accommodating free exercise. It’s very hard to find a way to produce win-win solutions when there is a clash between religious liberty and other human rights and civil liberties.

R&P: As a brief closing note, how do you see religion playing out in the upcoming presidential 2020 race?

PW: I think things, from my perspective, are going to get worse, not better. Faith is going to, as a general matter, draw people more apart than together. And I think the Christian right is going to be more amped up, more energized on behalf of Trump. I think that there has been a corrosion that has occurred. They have accommodated themselves with almost every passing month to his degradations and his transgressions. On top of that, I think that the Democratic Party is being radicalized by Trump as well. I think that the feelings are going to get more intense, not less. I think this virus has to run itself through the system, and hopefully, it will run itself through the system and we will get back to a better place.

MR: I hope that the Democratic Party does not try to beat Trumpism with Trump-like tactics. I think it’s very important, for example, for us to be clear, I would say this for both parties, to encourage people who are running, not to fearmonger on the basis of factors like faith and race and ethnicity. I hope people on every side will call that out if they see it happening, and also call out the use of violent imagery, which is just so scary. It’s like throwing a lit match on dry kindling right now. Keeping people safe has to be first and foremost. I also think in addition to what the politicians do, it’s very important that religious communities not let themselves be co-opted by candidates, and that’s up to us. We have to do that work, and that’s a whole other challenge in this upcoming election.

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