June 2024 Church & State Magazine - June 2024

My advice for recent graduates: Be your authentic selves — and help others do the same

  Rachel Laser

On May 18, I had the honor of delivering the baccalaureate address at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. Back in November of last year, Lehigh’s chaplain, the Rev. Dr. Lloyd Steffen, had emailed me out of the blue inviting me to give this address. I wondered how Lloyd had found me, since he and I didn’t have a preexisting relationship, and I didn’t go to Lehigh.

It turned out that Lloyd has been a longtime AU member and had even served on AU’s National Leadership Council. Lloyd told me that he and my predecessor, the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, knew each other and that he had asked Barry to speak at Lehigh (which is located in the town where Barry grew up) after the September 11, 2001, attacks, accurately anticipating religious extremists’ reaction to that tragedy.

In his official letter of invite, Lloyd noted my work across my career, not just on religious freedom, but also on reproductive freedom, racial justice and finding common ground between progressives and evangelical Christians. Lloyd made clear that as the speaker, I should talk about whatever values were most important to me. With this sort of generous and open invitation, how hard could it be to accept, right? I said yes immediately.

But it proved to be much harder than I thought. I ended up opening the speech by describing my struggle to draft my remarks. Then, I shared how that struggle had illuminated what I wanted to say: That being yourself, even when it means being someone who is struggling or different from those around you, is essential — for our individual successes and for our collective one. My three concrete pieces of advice were: ask for help; be authentically yourself; and help others be themselves.

I explained that I was proud to lead AU because church-state separation is crucial to allowing people of all religious beliefs, the nonreligious, and all of us who do not pass one religion’s litmus test to be ourselves, no matter our religion, race, sex, sexual orientation or gender identity.

We all benefit from a society where we are free to live as our true selves, but today’s younger people especially do. Nearly 4 in 10 people under age 30 claim no religious affiliation whatsoever. Almost a third of Generation Z adults identify as LGBTQ+. Young adults are also at reproductive age and depend on the right to an abortion in order to be able to make their own decisions about their own bodies, lives and futures.

I encouraged the graduates to think about what a privilege it was to be part of a community where they spent four (or more) years debating each other and their professors, learning and living alongside people who are different from them and coming into themselves — and what a privilege it was to be sitting together in that chapel across our differences to celebrate Lehigh’s class of 2024.

Communities that invite everyone to be their authentic, vulnerable selves thrive, because people can bring their most and by being vulnerable, can also connect most deeply with each other — even across real differences. Inversely, communities that prevent people from living as their authentic selves are divided and prone to violence. Our founders knew this, and it’s one of the main reasons they insisted on separating church and state. They got that church-state separation was key not just to their religious freedom but also to the survival of our diverse nation.

As we celebrate Pride Month, let’s pause and remember that all of us, not just some of us, benefit when we can be authentically and vulnerably ourselves. When LGBTQ+ people have that freedom, so do women, religious and racial minorities and the nonreligious. So do all of us who in any way are different from the norm, different from the baseline or part of a less-powerful group in society — and that’s most of us. We thrive as individuals and connect with each other when we live authentically and vulnerably.

That’s what I remembered that got me past my struggle to write my remarks. It may not always be easy to be ourselves. We don’t always know who we are. We aren’t just one self. We change. But we must be free to struggle to be ourselves and to share that with others, because the quality of our lives and the future of our country will be better for it. 

Rachel K. Laser is president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

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