By Camille Serrano
Throughout AU’s Youth Organizing Fellowship, fellows are encouraged to launch a year-long project revolving around church-state separation. It has been a recurring issue for fellows to come across people who believe church-state separation is an “old people’s issue” and believe it is “no longer relevant” today. For my project, I wanted to destigmatize these ageist myths about church-state separation by examining the impact of church-state separation on youth across the country.
From November 2022 through January 2023, I used a mixed-method approach to gather quantitative and qualitative data to learn how church-state separation (or lack thereof) is affecting youth. To gather the data, participants were asked to complete an online survey and a 30-minute one-on-one interview to describe their experiences. I focused on members of the current AU fellowship. Participants reside in a variety of states including Texas, Illinois, Georgia, New Jersey, South Carolina and Massachusetts. The ages of participants range from 20 to 23 years old and represent a spread of religious beliefs or none, including Christian, Presbyterian, agnostic, non-religious and atheist. The majority of participants used she/her/hers pronouns (71.4%) and the minority of participants (28.6%) used he/him/his pronouns.
‘Faith Being Twisted’
I had the opportunity to learn about the lived experiences of participants and how religion is being weaponized to infringe on the safety of historically marginalized communities. One participant spoke out against, “My faith being twisted by nationalist Christianity that is not rooted in the religion itself.” For the question, “In the city you currently reside, do you see a clear separation of church and state?” 57.1% of participants answered “no.” Moreover, for the question, “How often is church-state separation mentioned in advocacy spaces?” 85.7% of participants reported it was “rarely mentioned.”
As the research continued, participants presented their thoughts on the misuse of religion to harm others. “Though I do not think religious people intend to do harm, I think misguided people have been weaponizing policy to condemn and marginalize certain groups,” explained one participant. Another participant stated, “There are certain locations that are off limits due to the violence … I’ve feared being ostracized due to now having certain views on things such as reproductive rights.”
After the overturning of Roe v. Wade, many participants expressed concern about the government attempting to “control women and police bodies with uteruses.” It is jarring to report 85.7% of participants showed fear for the future. The results showcase church-state separation for religious equality and safety for youth today.
Organizing For Change
In order to enact change, participants voiced a variety of ways we can advocate for religious freedom. Common themes include building alliances, advocating for the Do No Harm Act and removing coercive religious language, imagery and practices from our government. While our identity markers can be used against us, one participant shared how a large part of organizing is creating relationships, remarking, “I am able to connect with different groups mostly because of my lived experiences.” It is empowering to learn that harnessing one’s identity markers is a game-changing tool in building coalitions, especially when advocating for a national issue like church-state separation.
After completing this project, I am hopeful that the need for church-state separation will be recognized on a national level as the Americans United Youth Organizing Fellowship continues investing in youth, and organizers unite to build a stronger democracy. Let this research serve as a platform of social change that brings together people of all religions and none to advocate for freedom without favor and equality without exception.
P.S. Applications for the next cohort of Youth Organizing Fellows are being accepted through June 12. Learn more here.
Camille Serrano is a member of Americans United’s Youth Organizing Fellowship.