Almost nine months on the job, I’m not only getting the hang of it, I’m getting a feel for us.
I’ve worked for long enough with our wonderful staff that we have witnessed each other in a myriad of different moods (e.g., from marching in D.C.’s pride parade to losing the Kavanaugh battle). I have enjoyed grabbing coffee when I can with the steady stream of young interns who work at Americans United. After three meetings, members of AU’s Board of Trustees and I have spent some quality time together.
Some of our members have written me personal letters and emails (keep them coming!), and I’ve met others of you through webinars and the trips I’ve taken to Boston, Chicago, Nashville, New York City and San Francisco. Just last month, I had the opportunity to spend two days with more than 50 of our devoted leaders from across the country at our annual National Leadership Council meeting in Washington.
So far, here are my three main learnings about who we are: First and foremost, we are diverse in most, though not all, ways. We hail from all regions of America, from Rochester to St. Louis to El Paso to Costa Mesa. We couldn’t have a broader range of belief systems – we are “born-once freethinkers,” Baptists, Jews, Seventh-day Adventists, Catholic deacons, Disciples of Christ pastors, “agnostic Roman Catholics” and much, much more! Professionally, we aren’t too shabby. To name just a few of our jobs, we are elementary school teachers, school superintendents, chemistry professors, nonprofit and business leaders, technology experts, clergy, law professors, lawyers and retired judges.
These differences are what make us Americans United for Separation of Church and State. (We need to do better on racial diversity; I’m working to change that.)
Second, we are engaged local and national activists. We send emails, give money, organize in our communities, work in coalitions and get out the vote. We write books and articles about religious freedom, speak publicly about our values and stay informed about current events. We participate in conference calls, attend meetings and advocate for a variety of other issues that we care about. We hold America accountable to her highest ideals.
My third observation about us came to me when I was meeting with a fun group of our chapter leaders at a local breakfast joint in Nashville. We are all, on some level, insubordinates. The reason I think I’m onto something here is that every single time I have tested the theory, you crack a huge smile.
Dictionary.com says that “insubordinate” means two things. The first is “not submitting to authority; disobedient” and the second is “not lower.” That we would be a group of “insubordinates” is really no surprise, given the views of those responsible for the religious freedom protections of our Constitution. Thomas Jefferson, drafter of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which is seen as the inspiration for the Constitution’s religion clauses, wrote in his autobiography that his intent had been “to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan [Muslim], the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.” Our principle of church-state separation, thus, was pioneered by those who wanted to ensure that America gave equal (not lower!) treatment to those who were considered heretical in that time, even within their own religious denominations.
What can a diverse, socially and civically engaged group of insubordinates get done? My answer: What can’t we get done? More than anything, we need to keep on keeping on. The risk is that even we lose hope during the challenging times confronting us.
This means, for example, that we need to be all in even when we face the inevitable next Supreme Court justice battle with a Senate that is numerically poised to support a nominee with a bad record on church-state separation. Why? Because in politics, you never know what could happen. Because success is incremental – we build it over time. Because we need to use every hook we can to make clear that America would not be America without the separation of religion and government, and to explain what’s at stake.
With you all on our team, I have no doubt that we can and will win in the long run, so long as we remember what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wisely said: “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”
Stay feisty, friends.
Rachel K. Laser is president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State
Photo: AU President and CEO Rachel Laser, center, with AU Nashville Chapter founder Charles Sumner to her right and other chapter members and local faith leaders.