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The relationship between religion and politics is fraught but necessary

Two former White House officials speak at ASU about the need for balanced communication in the Trump era

religion and politics
January 29, 2018

Jan. 20 marked one year since Donald Trump became president of the United States. Since then, politicians, pundits and citizens of all stripes have watched as America became a nation more deeply divided than ever before.

On Monday evening, Arizona State University's Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict hosted two former White House officials at the Marston Exploration Theater on the Tempe campus to discuss the role of religion in shaping today’s political landscape.

The center’s first public lecture, “Religion and Politics in the Era of Trump: Two Views from the White House,” welcomed Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center who served in the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush and who writes widely on political, cultural, religious and national-security issues; and Melissa Rogers, a senior fellow in governance studies at The Brookings Institution who served as special assistant to the president and executive director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in the Barack Obama administration.

Citing the nuclear situation with North Korea, the progression of climate change and the unprecedented turbulence of our democracy, the center’s interim director John Carlson said that America has returned to a state of affairs it hasn’t seen since the 1950s, with the Doomsday Clock set at just two minutes before midnight.

Standing in the way of solutions to those issues, Carlson said, is a “kind of division that suggests there is something deeper” than the usual party differences, and that “religion is part of it.” He began Monday’s discussion by asking Wehner and Rogers to reflect on how they saw religion impact the former presidents’ administrations on which they served.

Rogers noted Obama is a Christian who, before becoming president, spent time working with church leaders in Chicago, welcoming their opinions on local policy decisions. As someone who had formally taught constitutional law, Obama understood the importance of the separation of church and state, Rogers said, “but that doesn’t mean the religious sector and the state can’t choose to talk and work together on issues of shared concern.”

Former President George W. Bush, Wehner said, wasn’t shy about his status as a recovering alcoholic who turned his life around after finding Jesus and converting to Christianity.

“His faith I think gave him a certain view … that all people have certain rights and dignities, having been created in the image of God,” Wehner said. It was something he believed influenced an initiative put forth under Bush’s administration to eradicate AIDS and malaria in Africa, which has saved millions of lives and is one of the largest efforts in history to combat disease.

“Religion affects people differently,” Wehner said. “It can be a force for good, and indeed it has been. But it can also be a malignant force. … I think for George W. Bush, it had the former effect; it sanded off his rougher edges.”

The difference between how those administrations and the current one engage with religion is stark, according to Wehner.

“I don’t think that Donald Trump has religious impulses at all,” he said. “And I don’t think he pretends that he does.”

Wehner likened Trump’s ethics to those of the 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, saying Trump operates under the ideas that might makes right, there are no objective moral standards, and that weak, vulnerable people have no value. Wehner said we see this manifest in how Trump treats and speaks about people, either in tweets or spontaneous comments during official government meetings, where cruelty, mockery and humiliation are all fair game.

It’s a notion that sticks in Wehner’s craw, considering Trump’s popularity among evangelicals. Wehner chalks thats up to a “grievance culture” in which voters perceive that their ideals are at risk of being lost to the liberal agenda and that Trump would be a “fighter” for them, whereas previous administrations and other candidates were too soft on certain issues.

Wehner, who identifies as a Christian and a conservative, recently authored an op-ed for the New York Times titled, “Why I Can No Longer Call Myself an Evangelical Republican.” 

“Trump supporters said that the political class in America is so corrupt, it’s so incompetent, that we’re gonna roll the dice on this guy,” Wehner said Monday night. “There was and there remains a … white-hot anger at politicians. And a lot of people saw Trump as a wrecking ball to that political class, and they let him go. And that was a huge mistake.” 

But it’s a mistake both Wehner and Rogers feel can be fixed if people are willing to come together despite their differences.

“There’s room for improvement on both sides,” Rogers said. “Some progressives need to understand religion better and welcome religious leaders to the table. They need to take the concerns of right-leaning religious people more seriously.” On the conservative side, she added, there could be more of an effort to address the concerns of religions other than Christianity.

“I’m also hoping that what we’re going through now is kind of a wakeup call for people about the need to return to the fundamental principles our country was built on,” Rogers said. She cited principles like the notion of freedom and equality for all people; loyalty to the constitution, not a particular person; a sense of impartial justice; the rights and responsibilities of citizenship; freedom of the press; and protection of electoral integrity. 

In the short term, Wehner said he doesn’t anticipate things getting any better. In fact, he said, they’re “probably going to get worse,” with the upcoming Robert Mueller trial set to “add more kindling to the fire.”

“We’ll have to buckle our seatbelts for that,” he said.

In the longer term, though, Wehner is hopeful: “Sometimes viruses create their own antibodies. Sometimes, when things are stripped from you, you realize why you cherished them to begin with. Perhaps Trump is the catalyst to a response [in which] people remember why norms mattered and why we have certain views of what honor is and how you treat other people.

“If people really care about these things, they have the capacity to change them. … I think we will.”

Top photo: Peter Wehner (left) and Melissa Rogers, two former White House officials, along with moderator John Carlson, the interim director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict, on the topic of "Religion and Politics in the Era of Trump" at the Marston Exploration Theater on Monday. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

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