Racial Equality

Separating Together: Living – And Learning – During The Coronavirus Outbreak

  Rob Boston

Even as we keep physically distant from one another during the coronavirus outbreak, it’s important that we find ways to connect with people and stay engaged on the issues we care most about – including the separation of religion and government. During good times and bad, we remain committed to defending the Constitution and its promise of religious freedom.

That’s why, over the coming days and weeks, we’ll be sharing recommendations of books, articles, podcasts, movies, and other resources you can check out if you have some extra time on your hands and are trying to keep occupied. Some will be serious, some will be more light-hearted, but all of them are offerings from our staff, supporters and friends to help us all make the best of these trying times – and come out all the stronger for it in the end. Bookmark this page and keep checking back, as we plan to keep updating it. And share your own recommendations here!

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

For today’s #SeparatingTogether resources, we asked one of Americans United’s newest employees, Sabrina E. Dent, to offer some recommendations. Sabrina serves as Americans United’s senior faith adviser and has a long history of working in the space of defending religious freedom. (Read more about her here.)

Sabrina recommends that AU members check out two books: Faith In American Public Life by Melissa Rogers and Religious Freedom: The Contested History of An American Ideal by Tisa Wenger.

Rogers, a former attorney for the BJC (Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty), former adviser on faith-based initiatives in the Barack Obama White House and a professor at Wake Forest University’s Divinity School, discussed her book with Church & State in January. She challenges the notion that separation of church and state drives religion from public life and advocates true pluralism that encompasses believers and non-believers, undergirded by separation of religion and government.

Wenger’s book explores religious freedom’s connection to issues such as race and empire building in the United States. (Wenger is associate professor of American religious history at Yale Divinity School.)

The book was released to rave reviews. Pacific Historical Review observed, “Wenger has produced an excellent, provocative book with a compelling argument. It serves as a valuable and insightful analysis of how the U.S. government, the United States’ imperial subjects, and different groups of Americans have all claimed religious freedom in order to justify and defend their actions.”

Lastly, Sabrina also recommends a documentary that has appeared on this blog before and was live-streamed on AU’s Facebook page over the weekend – American Heretics: The Politics of the Gospel. The film profiles progressive clergy who are challenging the dominance of the Religious Right in Oklahoma. AU President and CEO Rachel Laser wrote about the film in the October issue of Church & State, shortly after she participated in a panel discussion with several of the people featured in it. (While the film is not currently available via a streaming service, the producers tell us there are plans for that this summer.)

We hope you enjoy these resources. Stay safe!

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Today we have a grab bag of resources on church-state issues that you might enjoy checking out during this period where so many of us are sheltering in place at home.

First up is a recently released book by education researcher and writer Diane Ravitch titled Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools. In the book, Ravitch dissects the movement to “reform” America’s public schools, explaining that it’s not really a reform movement at all – it’s a privatization scheme led mainly by billionaires. Ravitch calls these would-be reformers “disrupters,” and her book contains several examples where public parents, teachers, students and activists have joined forces to turn back their schemes. (The book was reviewed in the April issue of Church & State.)

The disrupters’s goal to undermine public education and shift tax funds into the coffers of private schools has gained a lot of traction in Louisiana. How’s that working out? Find out by listening to the Center for Investigative Reporting’s “Reveal” program, which produced an excellent episode last year called “The Cost of School Choice.” The podcast is an in-depth examination of Louisiana’s 10-year-old voucher plan, which taxpayers support every year to the tune of $40 million.

Feel like watching a documentary? You’re in luck! “American Heretics,” a film that looks at efforts by progressive faith leaders to push back against the political dominance of the Religious Right in Oklahoma, is streaming for free via Facebook April 25. The screening will be followed by a panel discussion featuring some of the documentary’s participants. You can watch it directly from AU’s Facebook feed.

Finally, during this time when religious freedom is under constant attack, it’s always useful to go back to foundational documents. Read the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, an eloquent statement on the tyranny of church-state union that served as a precursor to our First Amendment.

We hope you enjoy these resources. Stay safe!

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

This week, let’s take a quick history lesson. How did the United States get separation of church and state? What have our historic leaders said about that principle over the years? Why is this so important? Americans United has some resources to provide the answers:

  • To start, we must confront one of the Christian nationalists’s most persistent myths: the belief that America was founded to be an officially Christian nation. Is this true? In a word, no. This Americans United publication tells the real story of our nation’s founding: We’re an officially secular state where the right to believe or not as you see fit – as long as you don’t harm others – is protected for all.
  • George Washington definitively debunked the “Christian nation” idea in a 1790 letter to Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I. In this eloquent missive, Washington made it clear to members of the Jewish community that their rights were secure in the new nation, a country that, as Washington put it, “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”
  • You’ve heard the metaphor “wall of separation between church and state.” Where did that come from? Thomas Jefferson coined the phrase in a letter he wrote to a Baptist group on Jan. 1, 1802. Read the letter to Jefferson and his response. If you want to know more about this famous letter, this article provides some important background.
  • James Madison, the Father of the Constitution and one of the primary authors of the First Amendment, worked to protect religious freedom and church-state separation all of his life. We’ve collected some of his greatest statements on separation of religion and government.
  • Jefferson and Madison had powerful allies in the religious community as they sought to ensure freedom of conscience for all. One of them was Baptist minister John Leland. Read about this often-overlooked hero of religious freedom and church-state separation.

We hope you enjoy these important historical resources. Stay safe!

Monday, April 6, 2020

This week, we’re going to focus on some content from recent issues of Americans United’s Church & State magazine:

  • The just-released April issue of the magazine takes a look at the question of religious tests for public office. At one time, many states had provisions requiring people to be Christians or even Protestants as a condition of holding public office. Learn what happened to these antiquated laws in this story.
  • Did you know that eight state constitutions still bar atheists from holding public office? While these provisions can’t be enforced anymore, they came from a time when prejudice against non-believers was common. Is your state one of them? Find out here.
  • Courtni Burleson and Ahmed Ali are Americans United’s newest employees. Find out what they do at AU and get to know them personally.
  • The Supreme Court has accepted a new case that could make it easier for religious employers to restrict access to birth control. Read about it here.
  • Like millions of others all over the country, the staff of Americans United has been working from home. That can present certain challenges. AU President and CEO Rachel Laser shares some reflections on that.
  • Education researcher/writer Diane Ravitch has a great new book out about the importance of public education and the threat of vouchers. We’ve got a review.  
  • Finally, if you’re interested in the question of religion in public schools, the March issue of Church & State took an in-depth look at the issue. The cover story provides a short history of religion in public education, looks at several efforts to amend the Constitution to require religious worship in public schools and takes a look at where we are now. Other articles examine occasions when violence has erupted over religion in schools and debunk common myths about the issue.

A subscription to Church & State is included with your membership in Americans United. If you’re not a member and you like what you read, sign up. We’d love to have you!

Monday, March 30, 2020:

  • Fans of podcasts might want to tune into this episode of NPR’s “Throughline” titled “Public Universal Friend.” It’s an intriguing story of religious freedom and a non-binary self-proclaimed prophet who challenged gender assumptions – in the late 1700s!
  • Another NPR podcast, “Unprecedented,” covers the waterfront of civil liberties issues, including some episodes that touch on religious freedom.
  • If you’re in the mood for a documentary, consider “We Believe in Dinosaurs,” which examines the conflict over taxpayer funding of creationist Ken Ham’s “replica” of Noah’s Ark in a small Kentucky town. The film’s website has information about how to stream it.
  • For a more historical look at church-state separation and how it has played out in public schools, try “The Lord Is Not On Trial Here Today.” This documentary takes an in-depth look at McCollum v. Board of Education, a 1948 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in one of the first legal battles over the role of religion in public schools. You can watch it here.

We hope you enjoy these resources. Stay safe!

Monday, March 23, 2020:

If it hadn’t been for the coronavirus, Americans United’s first-ever National Advocacy Summit (NAS) would have been well under way today. The event has been rescheduled for Sept. 13-15, but you can get a head start on things by checking out these resources from NAS speakers:

  • The Rev. Kentina Washington-Leapheart, an ordained minister who currently works as a writer and consultant, will join her wife, the Rev. Naomi Washington-Leapheart, and others for a panel on the connection between racial justice and religious freedom. She contributed to The Words of Her Mouth: Psalms for the Struggle, which the editor described as “conversation with the psalms in this season of child separation and climate change and #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter.”
  • Robert P. Jones, the CEO and founder of the Public Religion Research Institute, is another NAS speaker who has published books. Jones’s The End of White Christian America is an interesting dissection of demographic trends in America and where they are taking us. Jones’s newest book, the forthcoming White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity, is a powerful look at the disturbing relationship between American Christianity and white supremacy. The book will be released in June, a few months before the NAS.
  • Take a break from all that reading by checking out singer-songwriter Scarlett Rabe, who will provide entertainment during the NAS. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter and check out her music on her YouTube channel.

We’ll be back on this blog from time to time with more ideas on how to school yourself about separation of church and state during this period of working from home, self-quarantining and sheltering in place. We’d love to have your ideas, too – send them to us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, or send them to us via this form.

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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