Editor’s note: This blog post by AU President and CEO Rachel Laser originally appeared in the February 2024 issue of AU’s Church & State magazine.
You might recall that I am the first Jewish leader of Americans United in its 77-year history. As the head of a religious freedom group, I spend a lot of time thinking about how my own religious identity shapes my experience of church-state separation.
One thing that I have noticed about our cause is how Christian it is in certain regards. Bear with me as I explain.
AU’s founders were primarily Christians. They came from a variety of denominations and backgrounds including Methodist ministers, Seventh-day Adventists, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention and seminary deans. Every AU leader before me has been Christian, and most were ordained clergy. Today, although AU works with many non-Christian and nonreligious groups, we frequently partner with Christian denominations and have Christian plaintiffs in our legal cases.
Consider our terminology
Testament to the Christian-heavy roots of our movement is how Christian-centric much of our rhetoric is. Take “church-state separation.” True, most religious institutions are churches in America, and the majority of the efforts to undermine church-state separation come from those who label themselves as Christians. It’s also the recognizable term of art. But there is no denying that it uses a Christian baseline to describe the separation of religion and government.
Now consider the expression “freedom to believe or not, as you see fit.” It’s geared toward religions like Christianity that are focused on belief. By contrast, Reform Judaism, the largest denomination of Jews in our country and my own faith, doesn’t equate having a religious identity as a Jew with believing.
To be clear, I’m not being critical of Christians playing a strong leadership role in our advocacy. Christians are best positioned to reject the idea that Christian Nationalism is rooted in true Christian values. This distinction is critical, especially given how many people (and Christians) are still waking up to the problem. Christian leaders have greater potential to resonate with fellow Christians, who are still hovering around a super-majority in America. And when Christian messengers criticize Christian Nationalism, they are less likely to be perceived as anti-Christian.
Christians speak out
So, it’s both heartening and unsurprising that in this moment of threat to church-state separation, there has been a surge of Christian advocates engaging. My friend Amanda Tyler, head of the Baptist Joint Committee, founded Christians Against Christian Nationalism to rally Christians to speak out against this dangerous political movement that warps Christianity. Andrew Whitehead and Sam Perry, leading academics studying and exposing White Christian Nationalism, are Christian. Christian Ethicist David Gushee recently penned a book, Defending Democracy from its Christian Enemies, on the importance of fighting against Christian Nationalism and for church-state separation.
Rob Reiner and Dan Partland’s excellent new film “God & Country,” which exposes and highlights the dangers of Christian Nationalism, is studded with Christian voices. It opens and closes with powerful clips of the Rev. William Barber II speaking from a Christian perspective, showcases Christian scholars like Kristin Du Mez, Anthea Butler and Whitehead, and spotlights conservative Christians like journalist David French and former Christian Nationalist the Rev. Rob Schenck. Not every expert is Christian; I am so proud of our in-house experts, Rob Boston and Andrew L. Seidel, and their amazing contributions to the film. But Reiner, who was raised Jewish, and Partland have made clear that the Christian emphasis is intentional.
I’m excited about “God & Country.” The film, which opens Feb. 16, has the potential to educate millions of Americans about the threat of Christian Nationalism. And I’m grateful for the courageous Christians who are opposing Christian Nationalism. Fighting White Christian Nationalism will take all of us and a variety of approaches, and Christians playing a leadership role is an effective one.
A few caveats
I do have a few hopes when it comes to Christian leadership in our cause. First, I hope Christian leaders will continue to remind their audiences of the importance of church-state separation to American and not just Christian values. Second, I would encourage Christian advocates to continue to partner with religious minorities and the non-religious. People from these minority groups may have a more nuanced understanding of where our country is still privileging Christians and what’s at stake in the fight.
The religious freedom cause will always be most powerful and true to its values when the broadest coalitions of Christians, religious minorities and the nonreligious come together to insist on a promise that is in all of our best interest.
Photo: Faith leaders hold a prayer vigil outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2023, to oppose Christian Nationalism. Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images.