Editor’s Note: 2022 marks the 75th anniversary of the founding of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. To celebrate this milestone anniversary, Church & State is profiling important figures in the life of the organization throughout the year. In this issue, we conclude the series by focusing on the most important people of all – you, the members and supporters of Americans United.
I’ve spent a lot of time this past year taking a deep dive into the history of Americans United for Separation of Church and State as part of the organization’s 75th anniversary.
In my office, I have a complete set of every issue of Church & State ever published – from the inaugural four-page issue in May 1948 to the issue published last month. It has been fascinating to comb through the old magazines and read about events where AU speakers in the late 1940s and ’50s would address thousands of people in public venues, appear on early radio and television public-affairs programs or testify before Congress.
What amazes me is how quickly this began happening. Americans United was founded late in 1947 and began operations in earnest in 1948. You can see the whirlwind of activity in those old pages of Church & State. Glenn L. Archer, the first executive director of Americans United, was finding a permanent home for the organization in Washington, D.C., even as he addressed thousands in Constitution Hall, hired staff, organized people locally in a nationwide network of chapters and appeared in the media.
How was all this work possible so quickly? The answer is a secret weapon that we still rely on today: the members and supporters of Americans United – in short, you.
Yes, I know – you probably weren’t around in 1948 providing donations and organizing AU chapters, but someone like you was. And that made the difference.
The founders of Americans United made a leap of faith. To borrow a line from the popular film “Field of Dreams,” they embraced the idea that if you build it, they will come. The “they” in this case were the members of Americans United. Without them – without you – nothing that happened during the past 75 years would have been possible.
So, the founders built it, and the members did indeed come. And right from the start, the members were the lifeblood of the organization. For three-quarters of a century, members like you have made the donations that keep AU up and running. Members have formed networks. They’ve testified on AU’s behalf before state legislatures and other government bodies. Members have served as plaintiffs in lawsuits. They’ve defended church-state separation in public arenas.
It has been my pleasure, during the time I have worked for Americans United, to meet many of our members as I’ve traveled around the country speaking at events sponsored by Americans United chapters and at other venues members have attended.
It has been a remarkable journey, and along the way, I’ve learned a few things I’d like to share with you:
Americans United members are dedicated: AU members share a passion for religious freedom undergirded by the separation of church and state. They instinctively realize why this issue is so important, and they know that church-state separation and secular government are the twin pillars upon which so many of our freedoms rest, including reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, the freedom to read/learn and so many others. This accounts for their dedication to keep religion and government apart: AU members know that if the church-state wall starts to fall, many other rights will tumble down with it.
Americans United members speak their minds: If a Christian nationalist attacks church-state separation in a newspaper or a candidate for public office calls separation a “myth,” you can bet that an Americans United member is going to respond – politely but with great force – to set the record straight. Our members are determined not to let the lies of religious extremists go unchallenged. They rely on AU’s resources to debunk those lies.
There’s no such thing as a “typical” AU member: Although Americans United was founded largely by Protestant and fraternal leaders in 1947, it is today amazingly diverse. Some of our members are religious while others are nonreligious. Among our religious members, we see a great range of thought, including Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Pagan, Wiccan and other communities. The nonreligious members embrace different labels, including atheist, agnostic, humanist, freethinker and others.
AU members are of all races, gender expressions and sexual orientations. They have different opinions on other issues. There’s just one thing AU members share: a belief that religion and state do best when there’s a decent distance between the two of them.
Americans United members are well educated: Over the years, we’ve surveyed our members and learned that they’ve earned college degrees at a higher rate than the rest of the population. Many also hold graduate degrees. AU members know U.S. and world history, especially the parts that deal with the intersection between religion and government. (They also know a lot about grammar. When, despite our best efforts, typos slip into the pages of Church & State, I hear from our members!) AU members hold (or held) many different occupations, but I’ve noticed that we have a lot of teachers in our ranks.
Americans United members embrace the “do no harm” principle: Members of Americans United respect the beliefs of others, even if they would not adopt those views themselves. But they are adamant that religious beliefs should not be the basis of our laws. They’re firm in saying that when a person’s religion starts to harm others or take away their rights, the government has a duty to step in.
Those of us who have had the privilege of working for Americans United – and in my case, working at AU has been the focus of my professional career, spanning 35 years – are well aware of the debt we owe to our members. Since day one, Americans United has always been the kind of organization that relies chiefly on modest donations from a body of supporters. In other words, AU is a true grassroots organization. Obviously, we explore all options for funding, but over the past 75 years, members like you have provided the vast majority of it.
But that’s not all you did. You spoke out. You wrote to state legislators and members of Congress. You joined marches and demonstrations. You came out to hear speakers. In short, you didn’t just keep Americans United alive, you kept it wonderfully alive. Americans United is the nation’s leading multi-faith, multi-philosophy, non-sectarian organization advocating for the separation of church and state. We’re respected on Capitol Hill and in state legislatures. Our legal team is composed of leading experts in this field. Our grassroots presence is growing, featuring new programs of outreach to young people and religious leaders. News reporters from all over America – and indeed the world – know to call Americans United when they need expert commentary on any church-state issue.
It would be easy to say we did that because we have a top-notch staff – and yes, we do. But our staff could do nothing without you. So, when I survey the distinguished history and powerful presence of Americans United, I am happy to give credit where it is due: You did that. You made Americans United all that it is – and all that it will be in the years to come as we work toward spearheading a national recommitment to the separation of church and state and do the heavy lifting of rebuilding the wall of separation between church and state. We’ll do it in the shadow of an inspiring past that inspires an exciting future. And we’ll stay with it every day, every week, every month and every year.
You made that possible then, and you make it possible now.