By Bob Allen
Presidential assistant Melissa Rogers credited the Baptist heritage of defending religious liberty and the separation of church and state with shaping her work as head of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships June 27 at a luncheon during the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly in Atlanta.
“The mission of the office is not to promote faith,” Rogers, former general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty said in the keynote address of the annual gathering of the BJC membership group, the Religious Liberty Council. “That’s the job of religious individuals and institutions, and properly so.”
“The mission of our office is to form partnerships with community groups, both faith-based and secular, to serve people in need,” she said. “In other words, our aim is to help people who are struggling, and we reach that aim, or work on that aim, by forming partnerships with non-governmental organizations.”
Rogers, who also worked previously as director of the Center for Religion and Public Affairs at Wake Forest Divinity School, the Brookings Institution and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, said in the past the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships focused largely on helping religious groups compete for government funds.
While religious groups are still free to compete for government grants, she said, under President Obama the emphasis is on forming non-financial partnerships with faith-based and community groups that don’t want government money but do want to work with the government to help people in need.
Rogers said such groups are often the crucial link between government services and the people who need them.
“The government has benefits and services that are critical to many Americans, but those benefits and services mean nothing if the people who need them don’t know about them and cannot access them,” she said.
“After all, most American’s don’t spend their time frequenting the websites of federal agencies,” Rogers said. “But they do have ties, usually, to one faith or community group. Thus they’re more likely to hear about a new flu shot or veteran’s benefits or job-training program or college aid application through, for example, a church or community group.”
Rogers said that through its missions and ministries the CBF knows well about helping to match available resources with areas of need.
“You don’t just tell a promising young student without money to go to college about the free application for federal student aid, or the FASTA form as you all know it,” she said. “You assist that student in filling out that form, and you make sure it gets in the mail, and that is one of the ways in which faith and community groups make a real difference working with government.”
Rogers said another big part of her work is reforming the financial partnerships that the government does form with faith-based and community groups, although her office doesn’t award those grants directly.
“These are actually reforms that were recommended by a very diverse advisory council on faith-based and neighborhood partnerships that I had the honor to chair,” she said.
“It’s an interesting role for me to work on recommending these changes, the president then agreed and embraced these changes, and now I’m working with federal agencies to make sure that these changes actually get written into federal regulations and guidance and policy and practice,” she said. “It’s a fascinating experience.”
After her speech, Rogers was honored as 20th recipient of the J.M. Dawson Religious Liberty Award, the BJC’s flagship award named after the group’s first executive director. Previous winners include former President Jimmy Carter, journalist Bill Moyers, retired BJC Executive Director James Dunn and CBF Executive Coordinator Suzii Paynter.
Rogers said she is indebted to both Dunn and current Executive Director Brent Walker for what they taught her during her tenure at the BJC more than a decade ago.
“Working for the Baptist Joint Committee years ago was a wonderful experience for me,” she recalled. “Brent and James gave me a great break to start working in this fascinating world. I just can’t thank them enough for their generosity and for the support that they gave me at that time, and for how, again, they have taught me through the years.”
Rogers also added that she appreciates “it in many new ways as an alum, and especially as I work in the White House.”
“I can safely say that there is no more respected voice on religious liberty in Washington, or in the country, than the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.”