Editor’s Note: Sabrina Dent is Americans United’s new senior faith adviser. In that role, she will work to build support for the work and mission of Americans United among faith communities as well as secular groups.
Before joining Americans United, Dent worked at the Religious Freedom Center of the Freedom Forum where she managed several of the education initiatives designed for religious and civic leaders. Prior to that, she served as program coordinator for the Doctor of Ministry Program at the Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology at Virginia Union University (STVU). She is also the past president of the Interfaith Community of Greater Richmond, a non-profit organization of 20 faith groups and denominations that is committed to developing respect, understanding and cooperation among the various religions.
Dent earned her bachelor’s degree from Virginia Tech and a master of divinity degree and doctor of ministry degree from STVU. Her doctoral dissertation project title was “Bridging the Gap of Race and Interfaith Relations: Connecting Humanity with Our Stories.”
Dent talked recently about her new position at Americans United with Church & State Editor Rob Boston.
Q. Tell our readers a little about your background – your education and where you’ve worked before coming to Americans United.
Dent: I am a proud native of Petersburg, Virginia. Growing up, I learned how to be a compassionate human being by watching my parents navigate the world. They were college sweethearts who raised a working middle-class family with three children. My dad was an entrepreneur, captain in the Army Reserves, and Pentecostal preacher. At the same time, my mother worked in retail for 30 years and was actively involved with the Girls Scouts and a host of church activities.
I attended Virginia Tech as an undergraduate student, where I studied residential property management. Working in the industry for over 10 years helped me to get clarity on what was most important to me – that is, caring about people. Throughout my career, I have worked in many professional capacities (housing, banking, mental health and theological education) that served people of all backgrounds, including vulnerable people and marginalized groups.
Before coming to Americans United, I worked for the Religious Freedom Center of the Freedom Forum, where I served as the director of programs and partnerships. I had the pleasure of engaging adult learners from many religious identities and none via our various programs and initiatives. However, the job that shaped me as an advocate for human rights was working for Shelter Our Sisters in Bergen County, New Jersey – a nonprofit organization that provides shelter and support services for women and children who were survivors of domestic violence.
I valued everything I learned in my role as a volunteer and eventually children’s program director because my help was not based on their religious identities but simply out of my concern for their safety and human needs. Practicing human dignity is my spirituality, and I teach my son to do the same.
Q. What made you want to join the Americans United team?
Dent: Quite honestly, it was Rachel Laser. I knew about AU’s work; yet, her commitment to speaking truth to the experiences of racial and religious minorities and the history of religious freedom issues in America spoke to my heart. Additionally, this was something I had addressed in my doctoral work.
At the same time, I had the pleasure of listening and learning from Maggie Garrett at a distance when the Religious Freedom Center hosted the Committee on Religious Liberty meetings. Both of these women are courageous and brilliant. As someone who has worked with individuals from many religious traditions and none, I valued AU’s position on several key issues, especially the Do No Harm Act. True religious freedom gives people the right to exercise their freedom of conscience, including freedom from belief without infringing on a person’s human rights. AU boldly speaks out on these issues.
Q. Obviously, the faith community in the United States is very broad. But where do you think we stand with faith leaders generally when it comes to separation of church and state? Are most supportive?
Dent: This question can be answered in several ways. Since 1947, AU has consistently shown up in the public square ready to protect Americans’ First Amendment rights that guarantee the separation of church and state. There have been many Protestant and Catholic churches, as well as Jewish communities that have supported AU’s mission. Although some public narratives may suggest differently by people’s actions, houses of worship do not want the government telling them how, when, where, what or who to worship. Those things are for that religious group to decide – that’s the point of free exercise and no establishment.
At the same time, there are many racial and minority religious communities that have not engaged AU in any capacity. We need to know where those communities stand and how we can support one another in our advocacy efforts. It is challenging to support an endeavor without some type of awareness of its work.
Q. Faith leaders are rightly concerned about a lot of issues these days. How can we ensure that separation of church and state doesn’t get overlooked?
Dent: The COVID-19 pandemic has raised so many critical issues as it pertains to the separation of church and state, including white Christian privilege laced with systemic racism. AU is doing an excellent job of addressing First Amendment concerns about the current administration providing stimulus relief for religious communities, as well as the bans on mass gatherings. While people are paying close attention to those issues, we must continue to sound the alarm on what’s happening regarding immigration – especially the Muslim ban – as well as religious discrimination that impacts adoption services for LGBTQ families, and public school issues including the posting of “In God We Trust” on the wall and private school vouchers.
Government funding should go to public schools, which should receive equal and equitable treatment. Many religious leaders during the Civil Rights era and now have spoken out on these concerns. Honestly, it takes the voices of all influential leaders of moral conscience and grassroots organizers to help us spread the word. I always say most times people need to see themselves in the story and the impact on their community to get involved.
Q. Thinking along those lines, can you say a few words about the nexus between church-state separation and issues like LGBTQ rights, women’s rights and reproductive freedom?
Dent: Religious freedom is layered with issues for many communities, especially women of color and those with low incomes. Issues of reproductive justice, adoption rights and health care for women and the LGBTQ community should rightfully be centered in discussions about church-state separation.
A religious institution or employer shouldn’t take away a person’s right to choose the best health care options for them or how they grow their family. It is the person’s right to exercise their freedom of conscience and belief in making those decisions. Consider this: Would you physically take your boss with you into the examining room at the doctor’s office? No, it is a personal matter. Then why should we allow employers or the government to make decisions about our health care options or bodies? Why should women allow men to make those decisions? The same goes for whomever people choose to love.
Q. Americans United has always enjoyed broad support from many Christian denominations and Jewish bodies. What about outreach to Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and other faith groups that are out of the Judeo-Christian experience? How do we grow support there?
Dent: Relationships are everything. In my work as an interfaith leader and religious freedom advocate, I made it my business to show up. When you show up to events and programs outside of your comfort zone or norm, there is the dynamic potential to build meaningful relationships with people and communities. We as people and organizations must develop a healthy sense of curiosity in getting to know our neighbors. I have strong relationships and friendships with individuals from the Buddhist, Sikh, Baha’i, Hindu, Muslim, nonbelieving and other communities because I had genuine interest not only hearing their concerns but collaborating in our efforts. Show up, be engaged, take action and repeat.
Q. Your title is senior faith adviser, but I know you’ll be doing some work with the many secular communities that support Americans United. Tell us about that.
Dent: Yes, I will. I really look forward to building relationships with AU’s long-time supporters. Recently, thanks to Nik Nartowicz, AU’s state policy counsel, I had the pleasure of connecting with Rabbi Robert Barr who leads a Humanist Jewish congregation in Ohio. It was great learning about their work and how they decided that church-state separation would be a social justice priority for them.
At the same time, I am honored to have friends like Mandisa Thomas, president and founder of Black Nonbelievers, who is a strong advocate and fan of AU’s work. I will continue to connect with secular communities of all backgrounds to hear their concerns. Most importantly, my goal is to figure out how we can walk together in building our advocacy efforts with religious groups on church-state issues. To start, I hope that people will reach out and say hello.
Q. Is there anything you would like to add?
Dent: I am truly delighted to be a part of the AU team. There is so much that I can learn from my colleagues and AU’s supporters along the way. At the same time, I recognize that I bring with me a wealth of resources as a black woman and interfaith collaborator who thinks intersectionally about the issues of religious freedom and church-state separation. In the last five years, I have learned that there will be difficult and uncomfortable conversations around the table about what this means through the historical lens of some communities and even this current moment – but these conversations are necessary. Addressing church-state issues should not simply be transactional but transformational if we are an organization truly committed to education, advocacy and social justice. With that, I embrace this new journey.
Note: If you are a member of the clergy or a nontheistic celebrant/ chaplain who would like to work with Americans United to defend religious freedom and separation of religion and government, please email Dent at [email protected].