Editor’s note: This blog post by AU President and CEO Rachel Laser originally appeared in the July-August 2019 issue of AU's Church & State magazine.
With my third kid having graduated from high school last month, I find myself feeling a constant tension in my heart. On the one hand, I’m thrilled to see my children succeeding at accomplishing their goals and becoming wonderful young adults. On the other hand, I’m reeling as I prepare for my youngest to leave for college, and I embrace the reality that my children are grown up and our time together as a nuclear family is much rarer these days.
I’ve noticed that the best way to connect with my young adult children is to let them drive the conversation, direct the topics and choose the time we spend together. The more I try to take charge, the worse it goes. Yet the more I let go, the more they come around. As my favorite poem, “On Children,” by Kahlil Gibran, begins: “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you. And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.”
Why am I starting my column this way? Because our wise founders’ decision to prevent the government from establishing religion subscribes to a similar philosophy.
Church-state separation is rooted in the notion that religious beliefs are stronger when the government lets go and people come to them on their own. It is based on the idea that forcing one religion on everyone leads to fighting, even bloodshed. And it’s grounded in the recognition that the ability to choose our own belief system is essential to our freedom as self-defining, autonomous human beings.
Over these past few months, I’ve had some scary reminders of what it looks like when the government imposes religious beliefs on its citizens. In May, I keynoted the National Secular Society conference in London, where I met Saif ul Malook. Saif is a Pakistani lawyer who successfully defended Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman who was sentenced to death after being convicted of blasphemy by a court for drinking water from the same cup as her Muslim neighbors in a rural village. Her actions were allegedly an insult to the Islamic prophet Muhammad.
Now Saif is handling another blasphemy case involving Shaghufta Kausar, who faces a possible death sentence because of a text message she allegedly sent that insulted Muhammad. At dinner, Saif told me that he continues to face death threats and actually expects to be killed because of his work.
Fast forward to June, when I attended an engaging conversation at the Newseum in Washington called “Disrupting the Narrative: Centering African American Perspectives on Religious Freedom.” Yale Divinity School Professor Tisa Joy Wenger explained that historically in America, a false claim of religious freedom was the “perfect tool in the arsenal of white supremacy.”
Dr. Teresa Smallwood, associate director of the Public Theology and Racial Justice Collaborative at Vanderbilt Divinity School, noted that “most of the time, ‘religious freedom’ has been a way to control” and drew parallels between the use of religion in our past to deny slaves rights and the use of religion today to deny LGBTQ people rights. What stuck with me the most was the theme of panelists pleading for a more “capacious” and “humble” view of religious freedom.
Just like humility is critical to good parenting of young adults, it’s critical to our country’s ideal of freedom. Religious freedom should mean that no matter which religion our country’s leaders practice or benefit from politically, our government should never say that one faith is more right or better than any other — or that religion is superior to non-religion. This humble ideal of religious freedom prevents us from fighting and allows each of us to be our truest self.
As my own little family endures changes but stays strong, I cannot help but think about the sad state of divisiveness in the American family as our country matures into the richly diverse land it was intended to be. This mother of three young adults has some parenting advice for America right now: One surefire way to help unify our country is for today’s leaders to find some humility and to stop imposing one set of specific religious beliefs on the rest of us. As our Founding Fathers understood, only with true religious freedom is it possible for our country as a unit, and all of us as individuals, to thrive.
(Photo: AU President and CEO Rachel Laser with her famiily)