This week, Maryland megachurch pastor Harry Jackson passed away at age 65. Over the last four years, Jackson was a member of President Trump’s evangelical advisory board. That consulting team was a marked shift in the role that faith communities had played in the executive branch in recent decades. The focus in the Bush and Obama administrations, by contrast, had been on the ways that faith-based and community groups could work with the federal government on social problems, and on hiring officials who would work on international religious freedom.
What role will religious leaders, religious groups, and religion policy play in a Biden administration? And what lessons might Biden take from his presidential predecessors on how church and state can work together, and how they should work separately?
This week on Quick to Listen, we wanted to discuss the future of faith in the Biden administration.
Stanley Carlson-Thies is the founder and senior director of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance (IRFA), a division of the Center for Public Justice. He served with the White House Office of Faith-Based & Community Initiatives from its inception in February 2001 until mid-May 2002, and later served on a task force of President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. He joined global media manager Morgan Lee and editorial director Ted Olsen on Quick to Listen.
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The transcript is edited by Bunmi Ishola
Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #238
Going into this Biden presidency, do you think religious freedom, religion partnerships, and even talking about religion is something that will cost him political capital, or is it something that will gain him political capital?
Stanley Carlson-Thies: This is a really complex topic, and anybody who has an interest in the topic of how the federal government relates to religion and faith-based initiatives, as well as how religious groups and secular groups work with the government to serve people, should read the Brookings report “A Time to Heal, A Time to Build.” There are parts of it that I think are not right, but it's very thoughtful and thought-provoking.
One thing that the authors Melissa Rogers and E.J. Dionne point out is that compared to 20 years ago, when President Bush was organizing the first White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, there are much more “nones,” people who are spiritual but don't identify themselves with a specific religious tradition, and there’s much more secularism, people who are quite resolutely not religious. Both of those are much stronger in the public and even stronger in the Democratic party. And so these issues come in a different context now.
Another really big change is the big development of LGBT activism and what's the federal government going to do about that. And those issues came up very strongly during the Obama administration and affected how the administration thought about religious freedom, about working with religious groups, and about religion in overseas relationships.
So it's a more complex time now, and I think we ought to recognize that, but these issues didn’t start with President Trump, they didn't even start with President Bush, but it started back in the Clinton years. There were important consensus statements, like one on religion in public schools, but also right in the middle of Bill Clinton's years was a welfare reform law that included legal language to change the way the federal government related to religious organizations that deliver services. And that really set off this trend to say that religion and religious organizations shouldn't be marginalized, and the government ought to figure out how to work with them, make sure there are no barriers in their way, and see if it can construct good partnerships with them along with the secular groups.
And so there's a long history—more than 20 years of the federal government innovating, institutionally and legally, policy-wise and of people outside of government thinking about what needs to be done.
One of the questions now is, how much continuity there will be? I think there's also the question of how much discontinuity did President Trump bring? And are we now going to go back to what was or going to strike off in a new direction?
President-elect Biden, very similarly to Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, but differently from President Trump, has personal and extensive experience with faith-based organizations that provide services, along with worship communities. President Trump has connections with a lot of religious leaders and with some churches, but his background—whether as a businessperson or in his private life—as far as I've ever been able to determine, didn't really involve working with Catholic charities, Jewish social services, Southern Baptist relief services, or anything like that. Whereas these other presidents all had a much more hands-on grasp of these organizations and what they do.
And I think President Trump's different experience in part helps us to understand how he took a different path, and why I think that president-elect Biden might go back to the path that was there before.
Can you tell us some of the ways that faith institutions and groups interacted with the Trump administration, especially with regards to how that was different under the Obama or Bush administrations?
Stanley Carlson-Thies: One of the questions that's been put in the air over the last couple of decades is, should there be some other kind of channel that faith organizations can have some kind of input and what should that look like?
It began back in the Clinton years with the understanding that because of constitutional interpretations and government practice, the federal government didn't work very effectively with faith-based organizations that provide services and it would be better if that relationship was strengthened and clarified.
And so through a process of legal change during the Clinton years, and then President Bush started the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, a lot of work was done on the terms and conditions under which the federal government worked with faith and secular organizations to provide services to people in need, in disaster response, things like that.
When President Obama came along, he continued all that. And then I think he thought building this relationship was good, but also that people of faith and the other nonprofit leaders may also have something to say to the government about not only how that partnership could be better, but also helping to inform the federal government's general operations. How does it tackle poverty or climate change?
So, President Obama created something that President Bush had not done, which was the President's Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. And that group was tasked in part to think about the nitty-gritty of how the government worked with faith and community to provide public services. But it was also tasked with asking big questions about the government and environmental issues, the government and poverty relief, how the government can decrease violence, and things like that.
And so a tradition was started of having these voices advising the federal government through this advisory council on big picture issues. That's one piece that was really strongly picked up by President Trump, except that he didn't have a formal advisory council. He had a kind of informal, an evangelical advisory group that he turned to when he wanted advice, and that that was kind of controversial with people.
What is the significance of the informality part of it? How did that shift things within our current administration?
Stanley Carlson-Thies: Yeah, so there are a number of things. One of them is because it was informal, it was called when convenient and various people were invited, and others were not invited. It wasn't an official body.
If it had been an official body like President Obama's advisory council, then there would be actual official rules about what you have to do. Like, when can you call meetings? Is this going to be open to the public or not open to the public? Who do you appoint to it? Do they have a conflict of interest? Can two or three of them meet when others are not meeting and can make decisions? And so that kind of formal advisory framework was not there with President Trump's group.
Now I think every president has a lot of informal advisors, right? And that's not problematic. But if you're kind of having an advisory council to advise the government about policy, then it ought to be transparent, records ought to be kept, and people ought to have a chance to see what it's deciding on.
And I think what President Trump created was kind of halfway in-between. It had a bigger role than just a few people he called up once in a while, but it wasn't structured to be open, to keep records, or to be representative. It was more a set of people that he felt comfortable talking with.
And for a lot of people on the outside, they looked at that and said that's not quite fair. Why do all those voices get to talk to the president all the time about things and the rest of us don't have this same kind of special access? So that was a matter of controversy.
And then I think many observers—and I share this—felt like it became a kind of a pipeline to his base and not an advisory council for government policy. It was more a way to lift him up politically and that's a different kind of thing.
Let's talk about what things the partnerships built through the Faith-based Community Initiative office are good at and what things they may not be good at. One of the issues that’s front and center right now is racial justice. Are there ways for the federal government and religious institutions to work together on that? Or would they be working on two different?
Stanley Carlson-Thies: Racial justice is an extremely complicated, multi-layered phenomenon. On the one side, there are policies that ought to be better legally regulated to ensure equity and equal opportunity. But there are also a lot of other dimensions that have to do with whether neighbors recognize each other as neighbors or as competitors or maybe even untrustworthy. And so it seems to be a significant part of better addressing these issues has to do with civil societies.
So that means religious groups and secular groups that help a community, that extended a hand outward to people who need assistance, actually kind of knit people together in common projects when in addressing areas of need.
One thing that I said to President Trump's faith-based people was that some of the gaps in society would be really helped if they would work intensively at opening the door to partnerships between the government and a wide range of faith-based and secular groups. Because in the kind of work that these groups do in communities, it's not based on faith, it's not a kind of a proselytizing relationship. And by coming at some of these things from the angle of service the administration can help draw people together. And I think the Trump administration didn't really see that as much as they could have and I'm hoping that the Biden administration will.
But one of the challenges that the Biden administration is going to face in this area is the question of, “is religious freedom just to cover for discrimination?” And if the federal government is going to be giving money to groups, is it going to have to keep out certain kinds of groups because they don't have the right views about sexuality or something like that. And that's going to be a significant issue that the administration has to address because the government can't work very effectively with faith-based or any community group if it's requiring them to adopt a standardized way of doing things right.
It's in their independence, the way they're rooted in a particular community, the way they reflect particular values that they have, that they flourish can speak to their own community. And so somehow that has to be left intact. So the next administration is going to have to figure out—despite these new divisive issues—a different religious landscape. How does it connect well with a wide range of groups that are quite different in themselves, but all want to contribute to the common good in their own unique way?
Something that the Trump administration decided to lean into and was international religious freedom. To what extent would you say that the Trump administration was successful in leading in this area and to what extent do you think that this is something that the Biden administration will want to “yes, and” as they do their work?
Stanley Carlson-Thies: I think there have been some significant steps forward. To what extent the Biden administration will want to just continue them as opposed to significantly changing them, I'm not quite sure.
But maybe it's worth kind of thinking about this: There has been a strong engagement of faith organizations in U.S. foreign policy and foreign aid that goes back to the post-World War II period. There were all these countries that were laid waste and the federal government deciding with the Marshall Plan and other ways wanting to play a positive role in building up these countries from the ruin of war. And it realized that many of the players were religious, so it entered into these partnerships with them.
So for a long time, coming out of the State Department, with overseas release relief and development there was this a strong partnership with faith and secular organizations of all kinds. But the State Department itself seemed to be pretty tone-deaf to religion. And the fact that many of the countries they were working with and probably we're dealing with that often had a religious side to them. So a lot of work has been done with the International Religious Freedom Act to bring into the State Department’s foreign policy side an understanding that religious freedom is really important. Because religion is so important in many people's lives that when governments suppress it, don't give it room, then it's a source of conflict rather than a way that people can find some common ground despite their differences.
So a lot of work has been done over 20-plus years with international religious freedom ambassadors and trainings have been offered to diplomats to try to build up the understanding of faith's role. It was happening during the Bush years, and during the Obama years, a new office created in the Office of Secretary of State where a religious representative could help the Secretary of State always keep in mind that when talking to a counterpart that the other country may have diverse religions or might be trying to suppress religion, and how that kind of knowledge would be important in thinking about that interrelationship.
So during the Obama years, religious knowledge was increased and now with President Trump, the international ambassador Sam Brownback has been holding regular meetings with a wide range of faith organizations to just talk about issues around international religious freedom. It’s this message that religious freedom is a really important part of good government policy, whether you're a religious believer or not. People of different faith traditions are in your society, so somehow you have to take account of this.
Will the Biden administration make religious freedom be a leading aspect in our relationship to other countries or will they focus on a number of things they think are really important —whether that's LGBT equity or that's racial equity or dealing with resource differences, and so on. My guess is that there will be a reevaluation of how much the religious freedom language and emphasis have been brought to the fore.
I hope it doesn't disappear though, because it seems to me it really is an important dimension of statecraft, and of diplomacy, and not just on the ground relief and development work.
Let’s discuss Fairness for All and the Equality Act. Biden has promised to enact the Equality Act over the Fairness For All Act. Given the makeup of the Senate right now, it’s unlikely that he’ll be able to do that. From your perspective, is that good news?
Stanley Carlson-Thies: One thing to say about Congress is that it's not been legislating hardly anything for quite a while, so will that change now? So I think that's going to be one of the questions. You know, after more than four years of finding it hard to bridge gaps, will Congress now find a way to do that, and with what kinds of issues?
The president-elect did say he wanted to see The Equality Act passed in the 100 days. And I think because of the Senate, being most likely to remain Republican, that effectively will mean a need for 60 votes to pass legislation. And it just does not seem that there are enough Republicans who would say not just that they want to see LGBT rights elevated and they don't want the collateral damage done to your religious organizations. So I think if the filibuster stays in place, it'll keep The Equality Act from moving forward.
Will that open up space for people to look at the Fairness for All Act and people might see that it's a pretty good piece of legislation? It wouldn't freeze everything into place, but it would mean that religious communities would continue this internal process of saying, are we wrong about this? Should we do something different? But it would stabilize their place so they can make that decision. In the meantime, somebody who works for Walmart and gets married over the weekend doesn't have to worry that their supervisor's going to fire them because of a notice in the newspaper or something like that.
And I think the Fairness for All Act also is going to require religious organizations to really think carefully about what it is they believe in, why they believe it, and are they being consistent in what they say they believe, or they just finding an excuse to get rid of certain people or to not engage certain communities?
So this is a great moment to confront this issue if the two sides decide to do that. Biden said he wants to be a uniter. He wants to represent everybody. So I think this would be a perfect policy as a way to do it. And so I'm hopeful.
I think all of us that worked on it could not foresee if it would ever pass or not. But I think we were all convinced that if the moment came when people said, “let's find a way to work together, instead of just hoping one of these days, we'll get it our way and not your way” that there had to be the language available. And so we did it—I did it— as an act of faith and hopefully, it will be a good gift to the American public.
As we wrap our conversation, could you share how innovation can play a role in the ways that the government could engage religious and faith groups?
Stanley Carlson-Thies: The religious freedom conversation itself has to be expanded out to a freedom of conscience and make sure that those other voices are also heard. It seems to me that it’s really important for people who want to protect religious freedom to be thinking hard and to be in dialogue with people who are worried that if you protect religious freedom so strongly, it's going to hurt their interests—whether they're gay people or it's some other interests that they're worried about. And to just say, “Well, it's in the first amendment, it's really important. We're going to protect it” doesn’t give the best way forward.
So I think the faith-based offices, however they're reconfigured are going to have to think about these things in a more complex way than when I was in the faith-based office back in 2001. And they need to realize that more voices have to be part of the conversation. A conversation that really pushes out towards the pluralism that we have become.
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