Editor’s note: This post by AU President and CEO Rachel Laser originally appeared in the January 2021 issue of AU’s Church & State magazine.
Happy New Year!
Those words have never rung more true than this year, as we finally say goodbye to 2020 and welcome a new year of promising coronavirus vaccines and a president who is much friendlier to our cause. There is much to celebrate.
At the same time, AU has some new puzzles to solve to maximize our chances of this new administration acting on the 10-point religious freedom agenda we have offered it.
There are some basic questions, and then there are more challenging tasks, such as reassuring the administration that embracing the separation of religion and government does not feed into any perceived religion problem. Let me explain.
No matter what Democrats do, they are labeled by conservatives as being anti-religion. Take, for example, Georgia senatorial candidate the Rev. Raphael Warnock – the pastor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s former church, whom conservatives attacked as anti-Christian based on his pro-choice values and progressive stances on issues.
Democrats always face this unfair label because conservatives, many of whom disguise their regressive social goals in religious garb, claim religion as theirs and decry progressives’ criticism of their policies as “anti-religion.”
Hence, it is not unusual to find Democrats demonstrating their “faith-friendliness” by responding with conservatives’ definition of what’s “pro-religion” – which too often means compromising on church-state separation. We saw this, for example, when President Barack Obama left in place Bush-era policies allowing faith-based recipients of federal grants and contracts to hire employees based on religion, thus continuing taxpayer-funded discrimination.
President-elect Joe Biden has a good record on church-state separation and has already committed to reversing some of the problematic policies Trump has adopted. But we want to make sure that his administration does not pivot to religious exemptions when they feel on the defensive on religious issues.
AU’s challenge – and opportunity – is to show the Biden-Harris administration that it can win the support of Christians, religious minorities and the nonreligious alike by supporting, instead of undermining, the separation of religion and government. Connecting not just with Christians, but also with the nonreligious and religious minorities should matter to this administration; these last two groups’ rights and freedom are equally important – also together they were crucial to Biden’s victory.
In fact, advancing church-state separation is the perfect way to build unity in our country. That’s because most Americans understand that keeping religion and government separate is the only way to secure freedom of conscience for all of us. Whether you are deeply religious, deeply nonreligious or somewhere in between, the majority of us value living in a country where the government cannot impose any set of religious views on us, and where our religious institutions stay free of government influence.
We know our issue is a great way for the Biden administration to address religious concerns and win broad support, but we also realize that AU has to be able to demonstrate this popularity in numbers. A national poll we did last year made clear that Americans across all religious demographics are considerably more, rather than less, likely to support a candidate who is for church-state separation. We’re now undertaking more polling. It will guide us as we hone our messages, including how best to combat conservatives’ claims that “religious freedom” means a right to discriminate. It will also continue to uncover the positive values that inspire Americans to support our cause. AU will be able to offer the new administration valuable data and insights from this research soon.
We also know that we need a cadre of faith leaders who, alongside secular leaders, can support our issue and validate any positive actions this administration takes on church-state separation. AU already has a robust list of over 1,000 clergy from across the country whom we will continue to activate. I’m excited to announce that we are also on the verge of rolling out our first-ever national Faith Advisory Council. This Council of a dozen prominent and diverse faith leaders will use their extensive networks to garner greater faith support for our issue, and they will use their platforms to be key spokespeople to the press.
With this new year in particular, AU has an opportunity to move the country toward our vision where every person is free to practice their faith or no faith, as long as they don’t harm others. Let me reassure you, we are not only up to the task, we are eager to dive in