Editor’s Note: On April 22-24, Americans United and its allies will sponsor the Summit for Religious Freedom (SRF) in Washington, D.C. The event will bring together activists, scholars, professionals and AU members and staff to discuss strategies for defending religious freedom and opposing Christian nationalism.
Brian Silva, AU’s vice president of outreach and engagement, is overseeing this ambitious project. AU supporters can attend in person in D.C. or virtually. In this Q&A, Silva talks with Church & State Editor Rob Boston about the SRF and what attendees can expect.
For more information about SRF, visit: www.thesrf.org
Boston: In September of 2020, Americans United sponsored an online event called the National Advocacy Summit (NAS) that more than 800 people attended. Is the Summit for Religious Freedom (SRF) the same event with a different name, or will there be differences?
Silva: The folks who attended NAS told us it was an incredibly positive event, which is why we immediately started looking to expand and build on that experience. We heard loud and clear that folks wanted to come together when it was safe to do so, and so we’re excited to have folks join us in Washington, D.C., for the full program, or virtually for a curated selection of the activities.
We built SRF around three core principles that make it a really unique experience. First, SRF is not just one event in April. It is a continuous series of virtual events that allow us to engage with current events and keep our community connected – all of which culminates with our in-person Summit in Washington, D.C. Second, it runs concurrently online and in-person. We know not everyone can travel or has the means to, so we made sure to incorporate as many tools as we could to make it radically inclusive to all. Finally, it is a collaborative event where we are working with our partners to find speakers, create workshops and more to truly reflect that church-state separation is an issue that affects us all.
Boston: The SRF will be virtual and in person. What should online and in-person attendees expect?
Silva: Those joining us in Washington, D.C., will not only find themselves in the middle of one of the most exciting parts of the city, but they’ll also have access to all the speakers, sessions, workshops and social events of the Summit. We are working tireless- ly to make sure the program is highly interactive, offers a wide range of topics and incorporates plenty of time for attendees to ask their own questions and meet new people.
For those joining us virtually, their curated experience of the program will also be highly interactive and engaging, with presenters who have built their sessions specifically for an audience that is both in person and online. Our virtual attendees will also be able to interact with and ask questions during these sessions. We can’t replicate the full in-person program at home – but we can create a top-notch experience for SRF attendees no matter where they join us.
Boston: Events like this often include well-known speakers. I understand you’ve already confirmed two keynote speakers I’m sure will generate a lot of excitement. What can you tell us about that?
Silva: We are thrilled that in addition to having AU’s dynamic President and CEO Rachel Laser speaking at the event, we have two of the most exciting speakers on these topics already confirmed as part of our keynote speaker program!
U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland has been one of the most outspoken supporters of religious freedom and church-state separation, as well as one of the strongest fighters against the rise of Christian Nationalism. Long before he started his work on the Jan. 6 Committee investigating the insurrection on that day, he was at the forefront of that movement. His keynote address will be a highlight of the program.
Our second keynote speaker is one of the most powerful voices of our time and literally wrote the book on the topic. Anthea Butler is the author of White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America, which is part of her distinguished history of connecting the dots between white Christian nationalism and the attacks on church-state separation, as well as related issues like LGBTQ+ rights, public schools and racism. She is a professor of religion at the Uni-versity of Pennsylvania and a leading historian and public commentator on religion and politics who has appeared on television networks, including CNN, BBC, The History Channel and MSNBC, and has published opinion pieces in The New York Times, The Washington Post and many other media outlets.
Boston: You mentioned that the Summit is meant to be continuous, with events both leading up to the meeting in April as well as after. Can you say a little more about the first event in November?
Silva: I’m thrilled that our first event will be a virtual webinar held on Nov. 17 to take a deep dive on the results of the midterm elections and what they may mean for church-state separation, religious freedom and the issues that depend on them. We’ll also be looking at how issues like Christian nationalism and more affected the outcome. Normally, these events are only open to folks who have registered for SRF, but this first year, we are making them open to all. RSVP today at www.thesrf.org.
Boston: Who should attend SRF? Why should folks reading this attend SRF?
Silva: One of our democracy’s most sacred rights is religious freedom – the right to believe, or not, as you choose and to act on those beliefs as long as it doesn’t harm others. That right is guaranteed by the separation of church and state, a bedrock of our Constitution. In a nation with countless sincerely held beliefs, that separation ensures that everyone is treated equally under the law. It ensures respect for our right to make individual choices, while protecting each of us from living under laws that favor some faiths over others and religion over non-religion.
But religious freedom, church-state separation and the equality they protect are under assault. Fueled by dark money, Christian nationalists and right-wing radicals – along with their lawmaker and judicial allies – are waging a coordinated crusade to force all of us to live by their one set of narrow, regressive religious beliefs – as AU Vice President for Strategic Communications Andrew L. Seidel so clearly outlines his new book, American Crusade: How The Supreme Court Is Weaponizing Religious Freedom – and Andrew will be speaking at the event, by the way.
That is why the attack on church-state separation is also an attack on you and the other issues you hold dear – why it risks our very democracy. It is bigger than any one organization, and so we must collaborate to preserve these rights, defend our issues and defeat this threat.
That’s why we are inviting you to join us at the inaugural Summit for Religious Freedom. SRF is designed for organizational professionals as well as everyday member activists and grassroots supporters of the cause. We’re a home for policy wizards, legal maestros, academic geniuses, kick-butt organizers and volunteer masterminds, as well as brilliant political, religious and non-religious leaders. It is a place for teaching and learning, organizing and advocacy, thought leadership and lessons learned, and bringing our community together for the fight of our lives.
SRF takes place April 22-24 in person in Washington, D.C., or virtually from your own home. To register or to learn more, visit www.thesrf.org. We hope to see you there!