Racial Equality

Religious Freedom And Racial Justice: A Critical Nexus

  Rachel Laser

Editor’s note: This blog post by AU President and CEO Rachel Laser originally appeared in the July/August 2020 issue of AU’s Church & State magazine.

On June 1, President Donald Trump used religion to advance a racist agenda. The admin­istration deployed tear gas and flash grenades to clear a crowd – many of them black and brown people – who were peacefully protesting racist police brutality. They were driven away by force so Trump could pose for a photo op (while holding a Bible upside down) in front of a church near the White House.

This event, sadly, is just the most current instance in a long pattern of the government using religion to justify racism. I will share but a few examples:

  • In 1852, the lower court judge rejecting Dred Scott’s claim for freedom from slavery reasoned: “[W]e are almost persuaded, that the introduction of slavery amongst us was, in the providence of God, … a means of placing that unhappy race within the pale of civilized nations.”
  •  In 1959, in the landmark case of Loving v. Virginia, the trial judge who sentenced a couple for violating Virginia’s ban on interracial marriage asserted: “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. …The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”
  • And in1963, Alabama Gov. George Wallace argued that the federal government’s effort to enforce de­segregation “is a system that is the very opposite of Christ.”

When I joined Americans United, I understood the importance of our issue for religious freedom, LGBTQ equality and reproductive freedom. But I had not grasped the depths of the relationship between our issue and combating racism. I learned about the historical events I shared above when I read the NAACP’s friend-of-the-court brief submitted to the Supreme Court on the side of a gay couple who were refused a wedding cake by Masterpiece Cakeshop. The brief reminded the Court of how “religion has … been abused to rationalize blatant forms of racial subordination.”

The more I learn, the more I see how integrally connected AU’s work is to dismantling racism. For example, at the heart of our work is fighting Christian nationalism, and most Christian nationalists are white Christians who rely on the myth that America is a “Christian nation”  to perpetuate white Christian power. We also spend considerable time and energy fending off private school vouchers, a scheme that was developed to evade integration orders and fund segregationist academies. Vouchers continue to increase rates of segregation in schools.

I recently spoke with one of our supporters who grew up as one of the only Jews in his neighborhood in the Appalachian region of Pennsylvania. As someone who witnessed virulent racism and anti-Semitism operating so clearly as part of the same system throughout his childhood, he understood intuitively how important our work is to both racial and religious minorities.

But I also continue to awaken to some of the incon­sistencies between our values and reality. Thomas Jef­ferson and James Madison, heroes to our movement for establishing religious freedom as a core American value, were also slave owners. When we tell the story of reli­gious freedom in America, we must remember to acknowledge our founders’ failures to live up to the very values they championed.

 And though our public policy work is critical, we must also do the internal work – on ourselves and within the institution of AU. Our five-year strategic roadmap prior­itizes engaging new, diverse audiences and messengers, and every department is in the process of integrating this goal into their work plans.

We know that to make good on our mission, we must have a more diverse workplace. AU has been intentional in our hiring efforts to employ people of color who are experts in their discipline and support the mission of the organization. We are in the midst of adapting our culture to build meaningful relationships among our staff and partners. And we know we must, ourselves, be accomplices to black and brown-led faith and secular groups. Earlier this year, our full staff participated in a training on privilege and racism. Since the protests, we have been meeting weekly (via Zoom) for an hour of productive discussion about how to make both AU and our country more equitable and inclusive.

We know this work is essen­tial to our vision of freedom and equality. It’s a work in progress. It will continue.

Rachel K. Laser is president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Congress needs to hear from you!

Urge your legislators to co-sponsor the Do No Harm Act today.

The Do No Harm Act will help ensure that our laws are a shield to protect religious freedom and not used as a sword to harm others by undermining civil rights laws and denying access to health care.

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