We were searching for a way (in addition to offering doughnuts) to make a recent staff meeting livelier and I came up with the idea of asking staff members: Why is separation of religion and government important to you?
In my first weeks on the job, I had made it a point to tell the staff why I joined AU. I’ll admit that, at first, despite my previous work on church-state separation issues, it took looking deep inside to find the words to express why I cared so much.
I cherish our mission because I believe profoundly in an America where everyone has a right to their personal set of beliefs and where everyone belongs equally in honor of and not just despite their differences.
Now, it was my colleagues’ turn to share! The nervous giggles in the room betrayed that this was not an easy question for many of our own staff to answer.
The three staffers who spoke came to AU from different places. One confessed that he had joined the AU staff mostly because he was looking for a job, but that along the way he had been moved by the passion of his colleagues and had come to deeply appreciate our mission. “That’s why I’m still here,” this employee of 20-plus years stated.
Another staffer spoke about how AU has given her space to live out her feminist values. She stressed the importance of setting boundaries on religion, which so often has been used to oppress women, but also noted how some women have used their religious teachings as a tool in their rebellion against the patriarchy.
The next staffer identified himself as a product of public schools and was most powerfully drawn to AU because of our work fighting vouchers. He first learned about AU in law school, but considers himself a lifelong supporter of our cause.
Since my start, I have been on a listening tour to understand why AU’s mission is important to our supporters.
Not surprisingly, those who stand with us in Congress are ready to answer this question. U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) is one of our most stalwart congressional champions. When I sat down with him recently, he relayed that separation of religion and government is a key issue for him as an African-American because of our country’s history of using religion to discriminate against people of color. U.S. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), whom I had occasion to speak with in my second week on the job, told me that one of the reasons he values our issue is because in his day, Catholics like him sometimes had to avoid public schools because they taught Protestant forms of Christianity. He wants to keep school-sponsored religion out of our public schools.
Our members, though not always as practiced in their answers, have their own wonderful and varied responses to my question. In March, I took a trip to meet some of our San Francisco members. Some voiced the importance to them, as gay Americans, of fighting the Religious Right. Others emphasized the need for civility – for an America where we all respect one another’s individual beliefs and do not impose our beliefs on others. And others talked about the challenges of being atheists – even in San Francisco.
What are the lessons here? There are two that jump out at me. First, Americans United is a phenomenal name for us. We are exactly that: a broad swath of people from all walks of life, quite different in many regards, who all come together in our strong belief in the crucial importance of separation of religion and government.
Second, while many of us feel strongly about the importance of church-state separation, too few of us feel armed to convey why it matters.
Why are you a supporter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State? Have you found the words? What is your “elevator speech?”
May I suggest you practice on someone? It may not come easily to all of us at first, but I promise that soon enough, it rolls off the tongue.
This is indeed a moment of unprecedented challenges. But it’s also a moment filled with enormous opportunity to clarify the importance of the separation of religion and government. We need you to share why you care.
Rachel K. Laser is president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.