Editor’s note: This blog post by AU President and CEO Rachel Laser originally appeared in the November 2018 issue of AU's Church & State magazine.
"Forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils.”
These words were spoken by Roger Williams, the Puritan minister who founded Rhode Island in 1636 as the first colony with complete religious freedom. He was also the original author of the famous “wall” metaphor later adopted by Thomas Jefferson. Williams argued for a “wall of separation, between the garden of the Church and the wilderness of the world.”
Throughout our history, faith leaders – often Christians – have led the way in advocating for religious freedom for all, including non-believers. Another example is John Leland, a Baptist minister who provided crucial theological backing for James Madison’s and Jefferson’s strong support for religious freedom.
Leland famously wrote, “The [religious] liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.”
Imagine how radical that was for 1790!
In a 1965 interview with Playboy, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., asked how he felt about the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision ruling school-sponsored prayer unconstitutional, responded, “I think it was correct … In a pluralistic society such as ours, who is to determine what prayer shall be spoken, and by whom? Legally, constitutionally or otherwise, the state certainly has no such right
And, as you may remember, our very own Americans United was originally grounded in several Protestant denominations and was founded by Christian leaders who met in a Methodist Church in Chicago.
Times have changed, as has the country’s religious composition. AU’s make-up has evolved, and today our atheist, agnostic, humanist and religious minority supporters are counted among our staunchest.
Still, people of faith, and particularly Christians, are crucial voices for protecting the separation of religion and government in our country.
This is true for two reasons: their reach and their passion. First, according to Pew, over 70 percent of Americans are Christian (but note that white Christians ceased to be a majority in America starting in 2014). Christian leaders have a special role to play in convincing their fellow Christians that separation of church and state is vital to our country’s fabric and, given today’s politicization of this issue, also that there is nothing anti-religious or anti-Christian about it (quite the opposite, in fact).
And second, Christian leaders, like other clergy, have a heightened appreciation for the importance of religious freedom – and often a supportive denominational history to draw on.
To be clear, our non-religious and religious minority supporters are essential as well. We (as you might know, I am Jewish) understand how unsafe we can feel in a country when the majority religion is allowed to dominate. We also, alongside some of the other populations who are hurt by the current undermining of separation of church and state (such as women and those who identify as LGBTQ) can provide the vulnerable human faces and stories that help motivate many Americans to support this principle. And we have passion, too, about the importance of freedom of conscience!
At the same time, I believe it is imperative for AU to continue to grow the already strong base of Christian influencers who champion our cause. That’s one of the reasons I was delighted to team up with the president of the National Council of Churches (NCC), a partnership of 38 Christian faith groups, and co-host a well-attended faith leaders’ meeting about Project Blitz, the Christian nationalist onslaught we are unmasking in this issue.
And last month, I was honored to lead a workshop for the NCC’s 2018 Christian Unity Gathering, whose theme was “A.C.T. Now to End Racism: Hard Truths in Beloved Community.” I examined the connection between the undermining of church-state separation and racism. Over 50 Christian seminarians from across the country participated, as I helped them examine the connection between white privilege and fragility and Christian privilege and fragility.
As a white person, I have led workshops before on white privilege, but I had never before, as a Jewish woman, asked a room of Christian leaders to think deeply about Christian privilege. It went well!
I look forward to continuing to grow our Christian ranks alongside our non-believer and religious minority groups and finding moments to bring us all together. After all, Americans United was created to protect against divisive moments like this one.
Rachel K. Laser is president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.