Every summer, the AU senior staff and I draft and the Board of Trustees passes a new budget. While this process involves a lot of numbers, it also creates a moment to reflect on our values. This new budget reflects that a National Advocacy Summit is greatly important to AU. (Before I forget, please mark your calendars for Sunday, March 27, through Tuesday, March 29.)
Given the uncertainty of where we stand right now with the Delta variant, some of you might wonder if we should hold a Summit like this.
Believe me, the board and I gave that a lot of thought. And we concluded that the National Advocacy Summit must occur, whether it is in person, virtual or a combination of the two. Let me explain why.
Community: What a wretchedly isolating moment we are all living through with coronavirus! And on top of that isolation, champions of church-state separation can already feel more alone than advocates in some other spaces. Our issue does not get the airtime it deserves. Too many people still don’t understand the role church-state separation plays in their lives. Coming together into a community, and a more diverse community than ever before – even if the event ends up having to be fully virtual – nurtures our top advocates and helps our supporters understand the greater movement of which they are a part.
It also gives supporters the opportunity to network, teach and recognize and honor each other. Imagine this: atheists conversing with religious leaders; young people sharing their strategy with people the same age as their grandparents; Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Christians, white people, Black and Brown people, LGBTQ and straight cisgender people sharing a space that represents freedom and equality for all of us. Community matters; it helps sustain us in hard moments. This is one of them. Religious extremists may feel emboldened, but they are also desperate. They are threatening our health, health care, jobs, access to social services, voting rights and democracy itself. The stakes couldn’t be higher, and we advocates need each other.
Learning: If there is one thing I know about AU’s supporters, it’s that we love to learn. And there is so much to learn from expert speakers and from each other to become the Jedi masters that we need to be to take on the challenges we face. We need to understand the attacks, who is behind them and what the best strategies are to fight back and fight forward. We need to learn how to describe what we stand for in a way that resonates with a broader swath of the population. We need to be able to tell real-life stories about what it looks like when church-state separation is eroded and diminished.
Advocacy: Out of sight, out of mind. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. These overused adages capture a truth about the need to be visible on Capitol Hill. There are two big mistakes advocates make. The first is not believing in the power of speaking up and connecting with their members of Congress, repeatedly. The second is failing to make an “ask” if and when they do.
Our senators and representatives need to hear that they have constituents who care a lot about keeping religion and government separate. They need to hear our stories so they can be moved by them and repeat them. They need to know exactly what we want them to do to protect church-state separation. We need to build relationships, stay in touch and be more top of mind. Last year, we had over 100 (virtual!) lobby visits with members. Let’s top that this year. We set up your lobby visit and prepare you for it. You just need to show up. This is one of the most crucial parts of our time together.
Celebrations: AU is having a big birthday next year. We’re turning 75 years old, a true achievement. We want to celebrate with you all that our beloved AU has accomplished and also look forward together at what we are doing and planning to protect religious freedom for generations to come. And we want to celebrate you — your loyalty, your generosity, your steadfast and smart advocacy, your tireless fight. The National Advocacy Summit will give us an opportunity to mark this important milestone.
We hope you can join us!
Rachel K. Laser is president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.