“ONE NATION, ALL BELIEFS!” With that chant, Americans United President and CEO Rachel Laser inaugurated the Summit for Religious Freedom (SRF) April 22 before a packed house at the Washington Plaza Hotel in Washington, D.C.
More than 250 people attended the event in person, with hundreds more taking part online. SRF, sponsored jointly by AU and the Proteus Fund, was designed to bring together activists and allies for two days of keynote speeches, breakout sessions, networking and fellowship. On Monday, April 24, dozens of SRF attendees participated in a Lobby Day to urge their members of Congress to pass the Do No Harm, critical legislation that would ensure that a 1993 federal law designed to protect religious expression isn’t used to harm others or take away their rights.
SRF kicked off with a video from U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.). Raskin had hoped to attend the event in person and give a speech, but he was receiving treatment for B-cell lymphoma and had to curtail public appearances.
“Thank you, Americans United, for doing this, for hosting this extremely important event,” Raskin said in a welcoming message. Raskin declared his support for SRF and saluted the “great glory of the American Constitution — separation of church and state.”
Added Raskin, “I want to thank all of you for being an integral part of the struggle to defend separation of church and state.”
Following an introduction by Brian Silva, AU’s vice president of outreach and engagement, who oversaw the creation and execution of SRF, Laser took the stage to welcome attendees and unveil AU’s new initiative to urge Americans to recommit to the separation of church and state.
The tagline of the campaign, “One Nation, All Beliefs,” is intended to present a more inclusive vision than the phrase “One Nation Under God” that was inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance in the 1950s. As Laser noted, “At Americans United, we think it’s time for a new pledge —‘One Nation, All Beliefs.’”
As the SRF audience joined her chant, she noted, “Inclusion and unity sound so beautiful, don’t they?”
Laser made it clear that the campaign’s tagline includes all Americans, including those who have no religious beliefs. In the tagline, “beliefs” encompasses those who emphasize science and reason as guiding principles as opposed to relying on supernatural or spiritual forces.
“Americans United will not back down,” Laser vowed. “Our partner organizations will not back down. We’ll keep fighting until this country grants its promise of freedom without favor and equality without exception. The Summit today is one step toward that vision.”
The AU leader blasted the idea that church-state separation is antireligion, telling the overflow crowd, “It’s time to take that false narrative head-on.”
She also challenged Christian Nationalists.
“Christian Nationalists are fighting to privilege the chosen few,” Laser said. “We are fighting for one nation, all beliefs. … Together, we can rebuild the wall of separation between church and state.”
Keynote speakers inspire and instruct
Over the next two days, SRF attendees heard from three keynote speakers and had the opportunity to attend a variety of breakout sessions. A chief goal of SRF was to make the connection between church-state separation and issues such as reproductive freedom, LGBTQ rights, the right to read and learn, women’s rights, the right to participate in democracy and others. Speakers explored these issues while equipping attendees with the information they need to oppose Christian Nationalism and support religious freedom.
Keynote 1: Bradley Onishi
The opening keynote speaker was Bradley Onishi, a professor of philosophy at the University of San Francisco, host of the “Straight White American Jesus” podcast and author of the recent book Preparing for War: The Extremist History of White Christian Nationalism (excerpted in the March 2023 Church & State).
Onishi, a former Christian Nationalist, offered attendees a unique insider’s perspective. He didn’t pull any punches. Christian Nationalism, Onishi remarked, is characterized by nostalgia for the past, the claim that America is built for and by Christians and a belief that the country is in a state of crisis and can be saved only by Christians.
“They fear losing their power,” Onishi said. “The idea is this is a country built by and for them. It doesn’t mean that the rest of us can’t be there. It just means we need to know our place.”
Christian Nationalists, Onishi noted, are enamored of a vision of America as a “city on a hill,” a metaphor drawn from a 1630 sermon by evangelist John Winthrop. The phrase has been invoked by numerous politicians over the years, notably President Ronald W. Reagan during the 1980 presidential campaign.
But this “city,” Onishi noted, is not welcoming to all. The Christian Nationalist vision is of an America that was once great but “the city on a hill got kind of invaded a little bit; some interlopers got in – some of the people in this room. We might need to put up a wall around that city on a hill.”
Remarked Onishi, “There’s a sense that the country has gone downhill, so the goal … is to go backwards, not forward. The idea of progress is anathema to the Christian Nationalist.”
Onishi noted that Christian Nationalists idealize the 1950s, a period when white Christian men reigned and the civil rights movements, women’s rights movement and LGBTQ rights movement were yet to come.
“It’s a time when all of the pesky folks who wanted what was promised to them had not yet been able to achieve so much of what happened in the 1960s and beyond. So, the goal is to go backward,” he said. “This extends from the family, to the household, to the society.” Under this vision, Onishi said, men run households while women submit. The only families that would be recognized and celebrated by the state would be heterosexual because, to Christian Nationalists, “that’s the building block of society.”
Slamming this “myopic, exclusionary vision of society,” Onishi blasted Christian Nationalists for their anti-democratic goals, fearmongering and their determination to reshape American society in “any way possible.”
Because democracy is messy and doesn’t always deliver the results Christian Nationalists want, they have embraced “an authoritarian turn in American politics” that manifests itself as a fondness for strongmen abroad.
“So, democracy is … kind of annoying,” he said. “And you know what’s helpful? Authoritarianism. Because authoritarianism allows you to act without hearing the voices of others. … Authoritarianism is convenient for the Christian Nationalists because it is the only way they can get what they want.”
Advocates of Christian Nationalism, Onishi said, admire dictators like Vladimir Putin in Russia and others “who act without asking [as] the way forward for the Christian Right.”
He added, “The worldview is about power. The sacred value is not the voice of the people. The sacred value is enacting the voice and will of God in the way that they understand it.”
Yet despite these authoritarian impulses, Onishi noted that advocates of Christian Nationalism see themselves as patriots, not traitors. He urged attendees to remember the power of community and storytelling. Christian Nationalism, as nefarious as it is, tells a story and lets its adherents know that they have a role to play.
“We all share a story,” Onishi said. “And if we don’t understand that, we will never be able to match what’s on the other side.”
The story defenders of church-state separation must tell, Onishi said, is one of saving the nation as well — from extremists who would lay waste to the idea of “a more perfect union.”
“What I realize now is those who are supposedly not the real Americans are the ones fighting to save this nation. What I realized is that those who told me that they were the ones who cared about God and country are the ones willing to turn their backs on this republic in order to gain power at all costs.
“What I know now is that those who have been told for centuries that they are not part of this place, that they don’t belong here, not true members of the American body politic, are those who are going to play the central role in saving this country from authoritarian ruin and lead us toward a more perfect union. All of you in this room — a proud and courageous coalition of believers, nonbelievers, monotheists, polytheists, atheists, agnostics — we are the ones who won’t give up on this experiment of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This is our story. … This is our shared story of being Americans who are united.”
Onishi’s presentation was followed by a panel discussion in which he was joined by Andrew L. Seidel, AU’s vice president for strategic communications and author of American Crusade: How the Supreme Court is Weaponizing Religious Freedom, and the Rev. Naomi Washington-Leapheart, an adjunct faculty member in the Theology and Religious Studies department at Villanova University and a member of AU’s Faith Advisory Council.
Keynote 2: Kierra Johnson
Kierra Johnson, executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, offered an inspirational address that reminded SRF attendees of the need to remain hopeful.
Johnson began by pointing out the strides toward equality members of the LGBTQ community have made in recent decades, assuming prominent positions in politics, the military, the arts and other professions.
“We’ve come a long way, baby,” she quipped.
But Johnson was quick to note that despite these advances, she is often asked why 2023 feels like 1973.
“If we’ve learned anything over these past five decades, I hope we have learned that progress is never linear …,” Johnson said. “Progress isn’t a destination but a journey.”
She reminded the crowd that all advances in rights were given only after a struggle, remarking, “Progress is inevitable, but it isn’t without cost.” Some of those costs, she said, include incarceration, death and psychological trauma.
“LGBTQ folks right now are being targeted,” Johnson said. “We are being hunted, we are being dehumanized. We are literally being erased.”
Denouncing a wave of laws across the country that target the transgender community and proposals that allow for blatant discrimination against and denial of services for LGBTQ citizens on the basis of religion, Johnson remarked, “Your personal bigoted morals are enough to green-light discrimination.”
Johnson noted that so far this year, more than 650 anti-LGBTQ laws have surfaced in 46 state legislatures, more than double the number the country saw last year in its entirety. These proposals, she said, hurt families and communities and put LGBTQ youth at risk. She noted that data shows that in 2022, more than half of LGBTQ young people said they had considered suicide.
“I know this is a lot, and it’s heavy,” Johnson said. “But we have to talk about the cost of freedom and who is bearing the brunt of it. We have to understand the impact of any and every time we are silent. We have to understand the impact of each and every time we don’t push past our ignorance. We have to understand each and every time the impact of when we don’t take action when we see an injustice in front of us.”
Despite the dire outlook, Johnson was quick to offer a message of hope, what she called “a vision of a better tomorrow and the hope and belief that it’s inevitable.”
Moments like this, Johnson noted, are often the focal point of change. In 2009, she told the crowd, Tea Party extremists banded together in reaction to the election of President Barack Obama. It was, she said, a time when “the culture war of our time was ignited.”
Yet, Johnson noted, people pulled together, and as the struggle for marriage equality took hold, there was “a massive shift, and the country came with us. So, we cannot believe the narrative … that we’re losing, that we’re sliding backward, that we have not made progress because it is precisely because of all of the progress that we’ve made that the opposition is grasping at whatever they can.”
Christian Nationalists are lashing out, Johnson said, because they fear they’re losing. Their attack, she said, focuses on reproductive rights, transgender rights and the freedom to access information, among others. The attempt, she said, is nothing less than an “attempt to erase truth and history.”
“What are they afraid of?” Johnson asked.” Young people who are comfortable with themselves? Young people who are comfortable in their family structures and the diverse family structures of their friends, who understand their history, who vote? Hell, yeah. It’s all an attempt to erase our voices because they know speaking our truth is power, and that power strengthens our cause.”
Johnson told the crowd that Christian Nationalists are trying to remove some people from the political process entirely by erecting barriers to voting. She called on attendees to be a threat to binary ways of thinking and center LGBTQ activists in the struggle.
“We have everything we need to create the social change we deserve,” she said. “We are everything we need to be to create transformation for the greater good in our communities. We have the power to shift a whole culture by asking, ‘Who do you want to be? How do you want to live your values?’ Because I promise you, the answer isn’t binary. Progress — progress is inevitable.”
Johnson’s speech was followed by a panel discussion featuring Ranen Miao, a former member of AU’s Youth Organizing Fellowship, and the Rev. Alex McNeil, a Presbyterian minister and activist for transgender rights who also serves on AU’s Faith Advisory Council.
Keynote 3: Katherine Stewart
The following day, SRF attendees heard a final keynote from Katherine Stewart, a journalist who has studied Christian Nationalism and author of The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism.
Stewart focused her remarks on Christian Nationalist efforts to curtail reproductive freedom, offering heart-wrenching stories of women who nearly died because they were unable to access abortions.
The attacks on legal abortion and certain forms of birth control, Stewart noted, are part of a larger agenda led by Christian Nationalists that seeks to control women and roll back the rights they’ve attained since the 1970s.
“Depriving women of rights isn’t just a consequence of anti-abortion politics, it is the point of the exercise.”
She added, “Abortion has never just been about abortion. It was never just an isolated policy preference among some people with religious convictions. It is, in fact, one piece of a radical movement of a group that is working toward a comprehensive transformation and indeed destruction of our democracy, and we need to understand it and talk about it as such.”
Christian Nationalists, Stewart charged, seek to single out half of the population “as members of a lower caste whose bodies are, unlike those of the other category, property of the state. You’ve designated that half of humanity or more for a distinct and subservient role — and this has ongoing effects in every aspect of society.”
The agenda of this movement, Stewart noted, goes beyond curtailing reproductive freedom and affects issues like discrimination in the workplace, the ability of women to hold certain jobs and sex roles in larger society.
“When you have a subclass of women with no control over their most fundamental freedoms, it impacts how all women are perceived and treated,” she said. “When reactionary religion determines social policy, it is no longer a personal belief system, it’s a tool for imposing gender hierarchies and social order.”
In the Christian Nationalist worldview, she said, male headship is seen as mainstream. Women are told to be subservient to their husbands. In some extreme circles, she noted Christian Nationalism advocates have gone so far as to call for revoking the right of women to vote.
Christian Nationalists, Stewart said, know that if women can’t control their reproductive decisions, they lose the ability to determine their own fate.
“The real point of anti-abortion politics is to make women property all over again,” said Stewart. It is a hierarchical view, she said, rooted in fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible.
What’s at the root of all this? Said Stewart, “I would suggest to you that hard times promote fear and distrust — the great enemies of reason.” She noted that Christian Nationalists are experts at stirring up fear and anxiety. Americans are told to be afraid of creeping socialism or changing gender roles. The latter issue, she said, has been especially potent for Christian Nationalist extremists.
“The source of greatest anxiety,” Stewart said, “is that which has to do with gender and sexuality. The great fear of crossing gender lines is the rocket fuel for this movement.”
Like other speakers, Stewart noted that Christian Nationalism is fundamentally antidemocratic. Its leaders have endorsed efforts to suppress voting. The anti-abortion movement, she said, seeks to advance its agenda “by antidemocratic means” and enshrine “a permanent minority rule by reactionary extremists.”
Anti-abortion groups, Stewart said, won’t let up now that Roe v. Wade has been overturned. Punishing people and institutions who help others get abortions, making abortion medications illegal and blocking access to birth control is next, Stewart warned.
“They’re going to go after friends, family, mail carriers, pharmacists, internet service providers and anyone that stands between the state and its property — female bodies. And if they succeed in establishing a police state to control women’s bodies, do you think they will stop there, happy in their success? Of course not. The task of putting women in their place, which is really the task of putting everyone in their place, is an endless one. It calls for continuous repression.”
To defeat Christian Nationalism, Stewart recommended making the connection between reproductive freedom and church-state separation more explicit. She also said there’s a political dimension to the fight and urged attendees to oppose gerrymandering and voter suppression, identifying these as tools that Christian Nationalists use to establish hegemony over everyone else.
Stewart’s talk was followed by a panel featuring AU’s Laser and the Rev. Traci Blackmon, the lead plaintiff in AU’s lawsuit to protect abortion rights in Missouri and the associate general minister of justice & local church ministries for the United Church of Christ.
In addition to the keynote speeches, SRF attendees had the opportunity to attend a variety of breakout sessions. (See a complete list below.) Also, dozens of SRF attendees remained in Washington to lobby their members of Congress on April 24. The event, organized by AU’s Public Policy Department, focused on the Do No Harm Act.
Prior to heading to Capitol Hill, attendees heard welcoming messages from U.S. Reps. Suzanne Bonamici of Oregon, Robert C. “Bobby” Scott of Virginia, Mark Pocan of Wisconsin and Jared Huffman of California.
Actors Bradley Whitford (known for his TV roles as Josh Lyman on “The West Wing” and Commander Joseph Lawrence on “The Handmaid’s Tale”) and Amy Landecker (who starred in the TV show “Transparent”) joined Laser and Blackmon on the Hill to lobby in support of the Do No Harm Act and church-state separation.
At the end of the main Summit sessions Sunday afternoon, AU’s Laser urged attendees to visualize a world where separation of church and state is fully implemented and respected.
She outlined a world where people are free to engage in the spirituality of their choice — or none at all — while acknowledging and respecting our differences. In that world, she said, no one would use religious freedom as a weapon to lash out at others, but true religious freedom would be protected.
“That’s the country we all dream of,” Laser said, “And that’s the country that’s not possible without church-state separation.”
Note: To sign Americans United’s pledge affirming your commitment to separation of church and state, visit au.org/pledge.
Aside from the keynote presentations, attendees at Americans United’s Summit for Religious Freedom (SRF) were able to join several breakout sessions on key church-state issues.
- “Boom! Lawyered Live: How the Supreme Court Is Catapulting Us Toward Theocracy” with podcast hosts Jessica Pieklo and Imani Gandy of Rewire News Group.
- “The (Gen) XYZ of Messaging: Communicating Church-State Separation” with AU Communications Department staffers Liz Hayes, Amy Couch, Rebekah Kohlhepp and Andrew L. Seidel.
- “Public Schools, Vouchers and the Wider ‘Parental Rights’ Movement” with AU Public Policy Department members Maggie Garrett and Sam Sokol and Sarah Cohen of the American Federation of Teachers.
- “Working Across (Non)Religious Boundaries: Religious Literacy 101” with Hannah Santos and David Callaway of the Freedom Forum and the Rev. Doug Avilesbernal, Evergreen Baptist Association of American Baptist Churches and a member of AU’s Faith Advisory Council.
- “How to Live and Die Out Loud” with David Warnock, an advocate for death with dignity.
- “Using a Womanist & Black Liberation Theological Approach to Advance Religious, Reproductive, and Sexual Autonomy to Achieve Reproductive Justice” with the Rev. Elise Saulsberry of SisterReach.
- “Protecting Religious Freedom in State Legislatures” with Nik Nartowicz, AU’s state policy counsel, Jeff Graham of Georgia Equality and Brittany Williams of American Atheists.
- “Legal Landscape of Church-State Separation & Religious Freedom” with Catherine Feuille and Kalli Joslin of Americans United’s Legal Department.
- “Youth Activism for Church-State Separation” with AU youth activists Induja Kumar and Victoria Williams and religion scholar and former AU communications intern Margaret Hamm.
- “The Ministerial Exception: The Little-Known Doctrine that Threatens to Strip Millions of Workers of their Rights” with Gabi Hybel, AU Madison legal fellow; Sunu Chandy of the National Women’s Law Center; and Dori Bernstein, formerly of the Georgetown University Law Center.
- “Religion and Reproductive Rights After Dobbs” with Smriti Krishnan of the National Council of Jewish Women, Shannon Russell of Catholics for Choice and Elizabeth Reiner Platt of Columbia Law School’s The Law, Rights, and Religion Project.
- “Christian Nationalism and Its Impact on U.S. Democracy” with Marilyn Mayo of the Anti-Defamation League, Jennifer Hawks of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, Allyson Shortle of the University of Oklahoma’s Department of Political Science and Rob Boston, editor of AU’s Church & State.
In addition, on Sunday evening, an authors’ panel on Christian Nationalism took place. Speakers were Bradley Onishi, Katherine Stewart, Seidel and Boston.
The Summit for Religious Freedom would not have been possible without the support of many of Americans United’s allies. Special thanks to the Proteus Fund for being a lead sponsor alongside Americans United. The following groups and companies provided support at the Sponsor level: American Constitution Society, Clyde Group, Eidolon Communications, Moore Response Management Group, Planned Parenthood, Schrayer & Associates, Inc
The following groups and companies provided support at the Partner level:
American Association of University Women of Missouri, American Atheists, American Humanist Association, Anti-Defamation League, Ashrei Foundation, Auburn Seminary, Catholics for Choice, Central Reform Congregation of St. Louis, Democracy Forward, Episcopal Diocese of Missouri, Ethical Society of St Louis, Faith for Justice, Faithful America, Human Rights Campaign, Humanist Association of Orange County, Interfaith Alliance, Jewish Community Relations Council-St. Louis, Jews for a Secular Democracy, Missouri State Women’s Political Caucus, National Center for Lesbian Rights, National Council of Jewish Women, National Council of Jewish Women-St. Louis, National Education Association, National LGBTQ Task Force, National Women’s Law Center, Network for Public Education, Oklahoma Parent Legislative Action Committee, Orange County Equality Coalition, Peace Church United Church of Christ of Kansas City, Mo., Persisterhood-St. Joseph, PROMO, Reproaction, Stand Up for Schools, Texas Impact, Unitarian Universalist Association, Vote Common Good