Editor’s note: This blog post by AU President and CEO Rachel Laser originally appeared in the December 2023 issue of AU’s Church & State magazine.
Last month I traveled to St. Louis, Mo., and Tulsa, Okla., to speak at two events. These are tough areas when it comes to our issue, but I left feeling hopeful and inspired. Let me tell you why.
The inspiration started with my get-together in a St. Louis diner with AU Board of Trustees member the Rev. Brian Kaylor. Brian is a Baptist preacher and president and editor-in-chief of Word&Way, a Christian media company based in Missouri.
When I asked Brian (over our eggs and funky French toast sandwich) how he became such a champion of church-state separation, he explained that he first came to it from the perspective of protecting religion from government intervention — along the lines of Roger Williams’ famous quote: “Forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils.” I told Brian I was primarily drawn to our issue to make America more inclusive. Brian and I talked about how low the odds were that a Millennial Baptist preacher from Missouri and a Gen X Jew from Chicago would have ended up having lunch together. Church-state separation brought us together!
St. Louis: 75 years of activism
I was in St. Louis to keynote the celebration of AU’s St. Louis Chapter’s 75th anniversary. In the lovely venue of the Missouri History Museum, I spoke to 100 people from many walks of life, including chapter leaders and activists, faith leaders and groups (including a number of clergy who are plaintiffs in our abortion-ban lawsuit), our local counsel for the lawsuit, Denise Lieberman, foundations and reproductive freedom groups.
The crowd was a mix of our most dedicated, decades-long supporters, volunteers, community members and folks newer to AU. It was exciting to witness the energy that our Missouri abortion-ban lawsuit has unleashed in support of our issue! Shout out to the brand-new member who took a chance on AU, showed up by herself and proclaimed to me at the end of the event: “I have found my people!”
Tulsa: Confronting Christian Nationalism
The next stop was Tulsa, where I was joined by my friend Robby Jones, author of the new book The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy and the Path to a Shared American Future, for an event titled “Christian Nationalism in America: Past and Present.” Many thanks to Rabbi Daniel Kaiman and Congregation B’nai Emunah for the invite and for the co-sponsorship of Magic City Books, All Souls Unitarian Church, Fellowship Congregational Church and Tulsa Metropolitan Ministries.
Robby and I dialogued before a crowded, buzzing room of nearly 200 people, including high school and college students, current and retired educators, faith leaders, congregants from different religious backgrounds, atheist leaders (thanks for coming, Seth Andrews!), lawmakers (state Rep. Mickey Dollens made the trip from Oklahoma City), lawyers and community activists.
Power in the red states
During this trip, I realized how critical it is for Americans United to go to red states. We don’t need to explain how important our issue is there. And we don’t need to spend a lot of time connecting the dots between Christian Nationalism and the many setbacks we’re facing today in our laws. They get it. And they are so appreciative of national groups investing in them. They are too frequently passed over because people assume there is no hope.
But what I saw – and what I felt – was a passionate, diverse group of people who had every single thing it takes to fight back, and fight forward. I think everyone in the room felt that, too.
At the end of our dialogue, I offered a thought about hope. Hope that comes from realizing that we’re playing the long game, and that the roots we put down now will pay dividends in the future of Oklahoma. Hope that comes from remembering to invite people in.
I pointed out that I did that with my Uber driver, whom I had invited to the event that morning and who had showed up. Everyone met Germile, as he smiled and waved. Germile had driven my colleague Brian Silva and me to the Greenwood Rising Museum, which focuses on the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. We got to talking, and Germile knew so much about that tragic event that I was certain he would love hearing about Robby’s book, which has a chapter on it. And I wanted the chance to tell him more about our church-state cause.
Germile made the effort to show up, and it meant so much to me. I reminded all of us that we can win, we have the power of the people – if we just believe in our own power, play the long game and invite people to join us.
Photo: AU President and CEO Rachel Laser (back row, second from right) and Vice President for Outreach and Engagement Brian Silva (front row, left) with leaders of the St. Louis Chapter.