Editor’s Note: This post by Americans United President and CEO Rachel Laser originally appeared in the June 2021 issue of AU’s Church & State magazine. To subscribe and get Church & State delivered to your door every month, become a member of AU.
I still can’t quite believe it as I write this, but with so many people in my circles now fully vaccinated and infection rates dropping, the coronavirus seems to be winding down.
My life appears to be speeding back towards “normal.” In the past month alone, I have been able to safely attend celebratory family occasions, including my niece’s bat mitzvah in Chicago, my middle daughter’s college graduation in Nashville and my great uncle’s 100th birthday parade near Cleveland. It felt incredible to be back with my extended family, giving hugs, eating inside restaurants and not feeling afraid.
You know you’re leaving a period of your life behind when you can reflect back on it. So here are some thoughts about what these past long 15 months — replete with an authoritarian president and a deadly pandemic — taught me about church-state separation:
Opponents of church-state separation will take advantage of crises to assert religious privilege. Remember the coronavirus stimulus money, the Paycheck Protection Program, that directly funded clergy salaries and funneled billions of additional taxpayer dollars to private religious schools? Or how about the 50+ cases where Americans United filed friend-of-the-court briefs because religious extremists were suing state and local governments to ask for a religious exemption from public safety orders that temporarily restricted indoor gatherings?
Opponents of church-state separation are often opponents of science. The same folks who backed Trump to curry government favor for their religious beliefs also thwarted science repeatedly — with disregard for human life. They defied public safety orders and met during the most dangerous stages of the pandemic despite the many documented instances of massive virus spread from such gatherings. Now many refuse to be vaccinated.
Unfortunately, this same base has support from a majority of Supreme Court justices who are just as keen to entangle religion and government and reject science. Who could forget Justice Elena Kagan’s deservingly harsh words accusing the Court’s ultra-conservative majority of practicing “armchair epidemiology” for continuing to ignore science and rule in favor of religious exemptions from COVID-19 gathering restrictions?
Opponents of church-state separation reject democracy. I’m thinking here of the Jesus flags and disgusting “Camp Auschwitz” T-shirts at the Jan. 6 insurrection at our Capitol. I’m also thinking about the white Christian nationalist groups mobilizing support for voter suppression laws in several states in order to depress the Black vote. We know already that resisting church-state separation is one form of rejecting democracy, but now we have witnessed stark attacks on other core aspects of democracy from the same crowd.
Opponents of church-state separation are not just fighting for religious (mostly one narrow form of Christian) privilege, they are also fighting for white, straight, cisgender, male privilege. This intersectionality has been on display everywhere. Trump’s Muslim and Africa Bans targeted both religious minorities and Black and Brown people. Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Council boasted that they were the ones behind his ban on trans troops in the military. So many of Trump’s executive orders creating gaping religious exemptions were blows against religious freedom, LGBTQ equality and reproductive freedom all at once.
Take, for example, the Denial of Care rule or the federal contractor rule that allowed a religious litmus test to be used to deny people health care or a government-funded job respectively. Consider that the same Supreme Court that has been steadily chipping away at the wall of separation has just taken a case reconsidering the core tenet of Roe v. Wade.
What a rough period we all lived through! What’s amazing, though, is that in America, we can make change if we act. And act we did. People took to the streets in Black Lives Matter protests and spoke out against Trump’s anti-LGBTQ policies and attacks on reproductive freedom. They went to court. They donated to AU and called out Christian nationalism. They voted. And Trump was ousted.
Obviously, we still have a lot to accomplish, but the repair work has begun.
As we continue to emerge from the pandemic, my hope is this: As we all get close enough again to hug, may we continue to do all we can to re-separate religion and government so that both can be healthy and thrive.