May 2024 Church & State Magazine - May 2024

Gathering at the Summit: The Summit for Religious Freedom offered strategies for defending church-state separation and defeating Christian Nationalism

  Rob Boston

Surveying the crowd of hundreds of attendees at the Summit for Religious Freedom (SRF) April 14 in Washington, D.C., Americans United President and CEO Rachel Laser couldn’t help but applaud “the beautiful mosaic of people” before her.

“SRF has created a space that is pluralistic, multi-racial, religious and nonreligious, LGBTQ, straight and cis, older and younger, and includes people from all over the globe, and from all 50 states, D.C. and several territories,” Laser told the crowd. “At SRF, we are Americans UNITED. We can feel that unity and the power of our unity.”

At the Washington Plaza Hotel, SRF reached a capacity crowd of 300. The in-person attendees were augmented by more than 500 people who attended virtually.

Laser celebrated that diversity, acknowledging that it comes from the protective barrier between church and state.

“The wall of separation between church and state is not a wall that divides us; it’s a wall that unites us — that ensures no one is favored, that allows us to thrive in our differences,” she declared.

Laser acknowledged the challenges of the times but also reeled off a list of recent wins for Americans United, in courts, in the halls of power in Washington, D.C., and in the states. She also listed new AU initiatives aimed at legal students and young people.

“Let SRF inspire you,” she said. “Learn. Advocate. But most importantly, make some new friends. Find common cause with people who are different from you. Because when you do that, you will build power for our movement, for our democracy. Celebrate our differences as a mark of true freedom. And always remember that it’s church-state separation that unlocks that freedom to be different, that protects your freedom to be you.”

The AU leader’s spirited remarks kicked off three days of speeches, workshops and breakout sessions, capped with a Hill Day April 16, during which attendees went to Capitol Hill to meet with members of Congress and their staffs and advocate for the Do No Harm Act, federal legislation that will protect Americans from discrimination on the basis of another’s religious beliefs.

The event was powerful and inspiring. Here is a recap of the keynote speakers:

Keynote Speaker One: Anthea Butler

Butler: A stark warning of the possibility of theocracy in America (Photo by Chris Line Photography)

The first SRF keynote speaker was Dr. Anthea Butler, a professor in American Social Thought, chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and author of White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America.

“I’m here to tell you that I’m not going to make you happy this morning,” declared Butler. Her message was a sobering dissection of the power of Christian Nationalism, and she didn’t hold back: Christian Nationalists, Butler told the crowd, are a threat to American democracy. In fact, she said, they seek to overturn democracy and replace it with a theocracy where their narrow interpretation of fundamentalist Christianity becomes the basis for all laws.

“I want you to understand that we are at a moment of crisis in this country,” Butler said. Speaking of Christian Nationalists, Butler was blunt: “What they want is a theocracy. What they want is Christians telling you what to do.”

Butler lamented the erosion of separation of church and state and urged SRF attendees to fight to get it back. She then dissected White Christian Nationalism, telling the crowd that its adherents pine “for a time that never was” — when America was officially a Christian nation.

Butler cited statistics showing that 27% of Americans believe the United States should be declared a Christian nation, and 40% believe our laws should be based on Christian values. She labeled Christian Nationalism an “existential crisis” and listed its agenda: abortion made illegal, church-state separation erased, erosion of voting rights, obliteration of transgender rights, restrictions on immigration and the imposition of conservative Christian values in government, education and culture.

Most alarmingly, Butler explained data showing that growing numbers of people believe political violence is acceptable and said that to many of these people, the violent assault on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, was “a primer.”

Butler also told the crowd that Christian Nationalists aren’t trying to hide what they want. She pointed to Arizona, where the state supreme court invoked an 1864 law to ban most abortions.

“This is what people are trying to take us back to, folks — 1864,” she said.

“Now it’s up to you, Butler told the crowd. “Do you want their country? Do you want that to be the way it is?”

After Butler’s speech, she joined a panel discussion with AU Vice President for Strategic Communication Andrew L. Seidel and Alison Gill, vice president of legal and policy, for American Atheists, to continue the discussion about Christian Nationalism and take audience questions.

Keynote Speaker Two: Erin Reed

Reed: outlines Christian Nationalist anti-trans strategy (Photo by Chris Line Photography)

After a lunch break, SRF attendees heard from the second keynote speaker, Erin Reed, a transgender journalist who tracks anti-LGBTQ+ legislation nationwide for her subscription newsletter “Erin in the Morning.”

Reed, whose work has been cited by the Associated Press, The New York Times, The Washington Post and other media outlets, keeps tabs on bills that would restrict trans people’s bathroom use, deny them the ability to take part in school sports programs, ban trans health care, ban books with LGBTQ+ themes and ban drag shows. In recent years, the U.S. has seen an alarming spike in bills like this in statehouses and in Congress.

Transgender people, Reed told the crowd, have become high-profile targets for Christian Nationalists. She called out the Christian Nationalist legal group Alliance Defending Freedom, remarking, “The things they are doing are horrifying.”

Some recent attacks, she noted, have bordered on the absurd. In March, for example, several Christian Nationalist groups, right-wing political leaders and Fox News personalities went ballistic because Easter happened to fall on the same date as International Transgender Day of Visibility.

The idea, Reed said, is to keep people in a state of agitation.

“Christian Nationalists have to feel constantly that they’re persecuted,” Reed said. “But they also have to appear powerful.”

This strategy, Reed noted, manifests itself in a curious way as Christian Nationalists argue simultaneously argue that trans people are weak and confused and also an unstoppable force that’s rolling over society.

“We are both strong and weak at the same time,” Reed said. “This is a hallmark of fascism.”

Christian Nationalists, she said, use trans people as a foil, labeling them a threat to children and calling them things like an “infection” and a “plague.” Their immediate goal, she said, is the subjugation of women and queer people, but she warned that they won’t stop there.

“Christian Nationalism has an identified target — trans people and queer people,” Reed said. “But the victories they win will be used against all of us.”

Reed’s speech was followed by a panel discussion and Q&A featuring Amy Couch, AU’s director of digital communications, and KM Bell, senior litigation counsel at the National Women’s Law Center.

After the panel discussion, SRF attendees had several breakout sessions to choose from, where they received pointers on activism from experts. (For a list of breakout sessions and workshops, see “Workshops and special sessions: SRF attendees learn hands-on skills,” page 10.)

Keynote Speaker Three: U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin

Raskin: Let’s make that victory ours, Americans United! (Photo by Chris Line Photography)

On April 15, Summit attendees began their day by attending more workshops and breakout sessions. But early in the afternoon they were back together to hear from the final SRF keynote speaker, U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), who offered a powerful defense of some basic principles.

The four-term congressman, who after his election quickly became one of the most articulate defenders of constitutional values, hailed SRF attendees as “secularists and constitutional patriots.” He also thanked the crowd for the warm welcome he received, noting that a book he wrote has been banned in both Russia and Texas, adding, “But I’m making it with Americans United!”

Raskin went on to salute “that great American invention — the separation of church and state” and hailed America’s founders who “wanted to rebel against centuries of fusion of church and state.”

Founders like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and others, Raskin reminded the crowd, created a secular constitution that does not mention God. That document, he added, contains a guarantee of religious freedom and a provision, found in Article VI, that says no one can be subjected to a religious test as a qualification of holding public office.

Christian Nationalists threaten all of that — and more, Raskin reminded attendees. He blasted the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, reminding people that it was an attempted coup and that its aim was “to overthrow our constitutional democracy.” It’s not a metaphor or hyperbolic, Raskin said — it’s reality.

“They want to turn the Ten Commandments into law,” Raskin said. And to those who insist that the Ten Commandments form the basis of U.S. law, Raskin had a simple reply: “Tell that to James Madison and Thomas Jefferson.”

Despite the challenges of the times, Raskin urged attendees to remain firm and keep fighting. “We have heroes on our side,” he said. “And we’ve got the Constitution and the Bill of Rights on our side.”

Raskin left the crowd with some words by Tom Paine, the pamphleteer whose words stirred hearts during the American Revolution. In “The American Crisis,” Paine observed, “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”

Concluded Raskin, “Let’s make that victory ours, Americans United for Separation of Church and State!”

Raskin’s stirring address was followed by a discussion with AU’s Laser and Wajahat Ali, senior fellow at the Western States Center and author of Go Back To Where You Came From And Other Helpful Recommendations On How To Become American.

Ali put forth one of the more compelling definitions of Christian Nationalism offered during SRF: “It’s a movement of hate that has hijacked Jesus and transformed him into a radicalized, weaponized mascot, a warrior who will return with an AR-15 and use violence, if necessary, to restore order and supremacy in America for God’s chosen stewards, white and Christian men. This mythical narrative is needed to sustain White Christian Nationalism, which is why our books must be banned, people of color must be silenced and history must be rewritten. Anything that challenges and exposes this myth as the dangerous fraud that it is must be canceled — that’s my definition of White Christian Nationalism.”

Following the discussion, Laser wrapped up the Summit with an exhortation to attendees: Spread the word!

“The end goal of White Christian Nationalism is the toppling of our democracy,” she said, adding, church-state separation “is the kryptonite. You are all part of that.

“What if,” Laser continued, “your greatest activism was daring to imagine a country that lived up to its values? Where the government treated everyone equally no matter who they love or what they look like or what their belief system is?”

She added, “As you leave SRF, please try to bottle up some of this SRF magic and take it home with you — and then act on it.

“You’re the best part of SRF; you’re the magic of SRF. … We can do this. We can keep church and state separate. You know why? Because we have the majority. Because we have each other.”

Congress needs to hear from you!

Urge your legislators to co-sponsor the Do No Harm Act today.

The Do No Harm Act will help ensure that our laws are a shield to protect religious freedom and not used as a sword to harm others by undermining civil rights laws and denying access to health care.

Act Now