Last weekend, President Trump participated in an inaugural prayer service at National Cathedral. As early as this week, he and his administration will begin to make decisions regarding religion’s role in American public life.
Fortunately, we have an excellent, time-tested guide for such decision-making—the First Amendment and other constitutional principles. The first sixteen words of the First Amendment state that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” According to Article VI, public officials “shall be bound by oath or affirmation” to support the Constitution, “but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”
These guarantees mean that the government cannot disqualify aspiring officeholders due to their religious beliefs and affiliations, or lack thereof. Our government must safeguard the inalienable and equal right of Americans to practice their faith, both individually and communally. At the same time, the state itself must refrain from promoting or denigrating religion generally, and it cannot endorse or prefer one faith over another.
In addition to protecting fundamental human rights, these and related principles have helped us to become a nation with remarkable religious vitality and diversity as well as healthy cooperation across faiths and beliefs. These principles have obvious importance for law and policy. They also provide guidance for governmental engagement with religious communities. Here are a few ways in which these principles should be applied.
First, President Trump and his administration should recognize that there are no second-class faiths under our Constitution. Both policymaking and engagement must be consistent with this bedrock principle. A good first step in this area would be for the Trump administration to invite members of all faiths—including Methodists, Muslims and Mormons—to the conversation table. Like other communities—veterans, business, labor, and civil rights groups, for example—religious communities care deeply about a broad array of public issues, and the First Amendment certainly protects the right to express those views. Welcoming all people of faith to the discussion from the outset would help to honor the spirit of the Constitution as well as President Trump’s desire to “bind the wounds of division” and serve as “president for all Americans.”
Second, the administration should respect religion’s independence from the state. As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said, the church “is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state.” Further, it should acknowledge that religious communities that have serious differences with the administration on some issues can be powerful allies on others, and that even communities that disagree with the administration on most issues deserve a respectful hearing. Engagement with religious communities should aim to identify and advance common ground and commit to respectful, ongoing dialogue where there are differences.
Third, the government’s focus should be on promoting the common good, not theology, whether in general or in particular. The U.S. Government’s role is not to advance faith; that is the job of religious individuals and institutions themselves. Likewise, while there is often overlap in the missions of religion and the United States government, it should be acknowledged that that overlap is never complete. For example, as James Madison recognized, it is beyond the government’s ken to say what is true or false as a theological matter; no “civil magistrate” is “a competent judge of religious truth.” Similarly, the government should remember that establishments of religion not only harm the consciences of those who don’t embrace the favored faith; they also undermine the religion that the state endorses by sapping its independence and vitality.
Fourth, when policymaking involves the clash of fundamental human rights, it is particularly important to hear from all sides before making a decision. Currently, the most prominent clashes in this area pit religious freedom against reproductive rights or LGBT equality. These clashes have become increasingly bitter and polarized in recent years. All too often, we have failed to recognize that there are people of good will on different sides. The Trump administration should begin its work by reaching out to people of good will with differing perspectives on these issues.
Like other presidents, President Trump has promised to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution.” Relying on principles like these will help him fulfill that pledge and build greater unity among the American people.
From March 11, 2013-January 20, 2017, Melissa Rogers served as special assistant to President Obama and executive director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.