Church-state scholar objects to 'Christian Right' designation - Word&Way

Church-state scholar objects to ‘Christian Right’ designation

NEW YORK (ABP) — Observers of religion in public life have been scratching their heads about inclusion of a Baptist scholar known for advocating the separation of church and state in a recent Newsweek magazine article titled "Faces of the Christian Right."

The photo slideshow named Melissa Rogers, director of the Center for Religion and Public Affairs at Wake Forest University School of Divinity, as one of 11 individuals who speak for a new Religious Right described as "more strategically, denominationally and ideologically diverse" than before.

Her name appeared alongside well-known social conservatives including Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council and Jim Daly of Focus on the Family as possible successors to leaders like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and James Dobson now retiring from the political stage.

Newsweek chose Rogers, a former staff member at the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, for her recently finished term as chair of President Obama's Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The group made recommendations about how to provide taxpayer funding for social services by religious institutions without violating the First Amendment's restriction on government sponsorship of religion.

"It's not as sexy as praying with the president, but it's the sort of stuff that fundamentally shapes the relationship between the government and the church for years to come," Newsweek reported.

Pundits that follow religion and politics reacted swiftly.

"Legal scholar Melissa Rogers is most decidedly not a member of the Christian right," Sarah Posner, associate editor of Religion Dispatches, weighed in.

Posner described Rogers, who also is a senior fellow with the Washington think tank the Brookings Institution, as "one of the country's best authorities on church-state separation law and an advocate for enforcement of the Establishment Clause."

Posner continued: "Not only would Rogers herself be surprised to be on the list, I'd imagine, but so would the Christian right itself: one of its core aims is the reversal of Supreme Court jurisprudence on the separation of church and state."

Looking over the Newsweek listing, Steve Thorngate at Christian Century found little they all have in common "other than being Christians, broadly right to center-left theologically, who have some degree of political influence in one area or another."

Sarah Pulliam Bailey at the Get Religion blog recalled an article she wrote last year in Christianity Today questioning whether the term "Christian/religious right" is even helpful anymore.

Rogers said she talked to reporters at Newsweek and hoped the headline would be changed. After it appeared that was not going to happen, she registered her objection in a comment on Newsweek's website.

"I'm a Christian, but I'm not part of the 'Christian Right,'" she wrote "That's partially because the terms 'Christian Right' or 'Religious Right' suggest that a person holds a set of positions, a number of which I have actively opposed."

While no one familiar with her work "would describe me as a member of the Christian Right," Rogers said, "At the same time, I don't claim to be part of the 'Christian Left.'"

"Part of my concern with both of these titles is that they often describe situations in which political views define religious views," she commented.

Another name on the Newsweek list was Jim Wallis, a progressive evangelical whose advocacy against social ills like poverty and inequality earlier this year prompted Fox News personality Glenn Beck to advise his conservative listeners to leave churches that teach "social justice."

Aaron Weaver, a doctoral student in religion, politics and society who writes a weekly news review for Baptists Today labeled the Newsweek article "religion journalism at its worst."


Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.