The Rev. Naomi Washington-Leapheart is an adjunct professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University near Philadelphia. Prior to that, she was the faith work director at the National LGBTQ Task Force and before that was a suburban community organizer for POWER, a multi-faith, multi-racial network of congregations in southeast Pennsylvania. She also served as co-pastor and minister of music at the Wisdom’s Table at St. Peter’s United Church of Christ. She is affiliated with the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries and the United Church of Christ and earned a Master of Divinity degree from Lancaster Theological Seminary in 2016.
Washington-Leapheart was among the speakers at Americans United’s National Advocacy Summit in September, where she addressed the issue “Dismantling White Privilege: Race, Religious Freedom and Christian Nationalism.” In this interview with Church & State Editor Rob Boston, she discusses the intersection between social justice issues and church-state separation.
Q. What does separation of church and state mean to you?
Washington-Leapheart: It means that the state cannot function as an instrument of the church and the church cannot be a tool of the state.
Q. There has been a lot of talk lately about religious freedom, with some people arguing that this principle should give them the power to deny services to certain people or meddle in their health care decisions. As a member of the clergy, how do you define religious freedom?
Washington-Leapheart: The First Amendment does not defend religious arrogance or moral superiority. What it does envision is a society within which an individual’s belief and/or nonbelief are protected from government interference and/or regulation.
Religious freedom is simply the right to autonomy of conscience. But much of the discourse about religious freedom presumes that conscience and action are one and the same. All my beliefs may be protected, but all of my actions are not. I can freely believe without state consequence, but I cannot freely act without state consequence. Why? Because my actions reverberate within a community and don’t just impact me alone. Personally, I do maintain that some beliefs are more inclined to compel the believer to harmful action, but the point of analysis, critique, and ultimately intervention begins at the point of action, not the point of belief.
Q. Social and racial justice issues are on the minds of many Americans right now. In your view, how do these issues intersect with church-state separation?
Washington-Leapheart: History teaches us that the strategic, political effort to use religious freedom to dispense and deny access to rights and services gained momentum in the wake of racial desegregation in the United States. In fact, we can go back even farther than that – white supremacy, from the beginning, was sanctified and affirmed by certain expressions of religion. So while our advocacy for racial justice must be a political reckoning, it must also be a dismantling of religious ideas and practices that give bigotry a moral foundation. An unjust social and political order reflects a deeply flawed moral compass. This is why we must preserve church-state separation.
Q. We’re hearing a lot lately about America’s changing religious landscape, specifically the rise of people who have no particular faith. As a religious leader, how do you react to this growing pluralism? Is it a challenge, an opportunity or something else?
Washington-Leapheart: The splintering of the national religious landscape, to me, represents the deconsolidation of religious hegemonies. Power, when centralized, even within the container of religion, can easily be used to shame, condemn, exploit, and materially harm those most vulnerable. This is an opportunity to break up religious monopolies and make room for broader expressions of the human experience.
Q. Many of the American founders who pioneered church-state separation and religious freedom, such as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Washington and others, were slave owners and never supported the rights of women. Their vision of religious liberty was far-reaching, but their views in other areas were regressive. How do we tell the story of the growth of religious freedom in America when we’re facing such a painful legacy?
Washington-Leapheart: I think the best version of a story is the truest one. I think America believes her own myth of exceptionalism. The founders did not live up to their own standards. The founders clearly had a personal stake in preserving religious freedom, in large part due to their own experience of religious bigotry or religious disaffiliation. And they, as landowning white men with political power, also stood to gain from anti-woman, anti-Black, anti-poor ideas that were codified into law. This should be our cautionary tale. They wrote the laws to benefit themselves only.
I think, as a nation, we’ve rested in our ability to articulate beautiful standards. But beautiful ideas cannot save us from our own egos. Only work can do that. Knowing this, we must be vigilant in our commitment to investing in the work of rooting out the moral contradictions in our ideas, politics, ethics, theologies and actions that belie our standards.