Tar Heel Travels: Lessons From North Carolina

Last week, AU Legislative Director Maggie Garrett and I traveled throughout North Carolina to talk with faith leaders about the need to keep faith communities out of partisan politics as well as religious freedom legislation at both the state and federal levels.

We made stops in Greenville, Durham, Charlotte and Asheville. The people of North Carolina, particularly the AU chapter leaders and leaders with the North Carolina Council of Churches with whom we partnered, are incredibly gracious and hospitable. North Carolina is certainly a beautiful state. I loved our time there.

One thing I was reminded of as we helped facilitate several four-hour trainings on consecutive days is that these issues are important to folks, particularly faith leaders! One common theme in our conversations was the need to keep our sacred spaces sacred. This means simply that houses of worship have no business intervening in partisan politics.

Houses of worship are most meaningful in people’s lives when they are spaces dedicated to ministering to those in the congregation and communities where they are located. This does not mean that faith communities are banned from any kind of political engagement – far from it! People of faith have, in many instances, led the struggles for justice and must continue to play an important role to ensure that all people have the right to believe, or not believe, whatever they want, so long as they don’t harm anyone.

Toward that end, one question we asked participants at all four gatherings to think about and discuss was, “What would North Carolina look like if there were religious freedom for everyone and religion was not being used to harm or discriminate against anyone?”

We wanted those gathered to do more than simply fight against people who wish to use religion to harm others. We want to corporately envision a world where all people, no matter their background or religious leanings – or preference to not believe at all – are free to pursue those beliefs. This is what was promised by the founders of the United States and what we are still working to see become a reality. Vision is incredibly important if we want to be about the work of creating concrete change and it was a vibrant conversation in every place we went.

Participants in AU's North Carolina faith leader training display Protect Thy Neighbor pamphlets.

As groups of participants talked and shared with one another here are some of the images I recorded from those conversations of a world with religious freedom for all:

* No one lives in the shadows for fear of what they believe, as some American Muslims do.

* All voices, religious and non-religious, are treated equally by the government.

* Taxpayer money is not used to propagate any religious beliefs in any way or form.

* Mutual, multi-cultural relationships exist among people from all backgrounds where there is more than tolerance – there is acceptance and respect for people of all beliefs, or no belief at all.

* People are allowed to marry who they want.

* Refugees are not banned from this country for being the “wrong” religion.

We also talked about some of the values that are behind the efforts to prohibit these dreams from becoming real – things like fear of racial integration, fear of culture shifts and just a general fear of change.

Also mentioned was a perceived loss of power and privilege among those in the dominant culture. If our dreams of a North Carolina, or for the entire United States, are to come true then we need to address those deeply entrenched values and forms of resistance. Sometimes we can help bring about needed transformation for those who hold these values through invitation into our communities and congregations where the values we hope for our state, country and world are being lived out.

When that invitation is declined, we will need to be more confrontational – and that means building a powerful movement to create the change we dream of for the world. The bottom line is that our dreams are crucial in our struggle for religious freedom for all.

The other part of this conversation that was surprising for me to hear was the fact that many of the issues raised by the folks in North Carolina had very little to do traditionally with church-state separation. I am learning more and more that we need to realize that we do not work on our issues in a vacuum. There is a tremendous amount of intersectionality in our issues with the issues are struggling to achieve.

Let me give you an example: As a father of an adopted biracial son, the Black Lives Matter movement is an incredibly important movement for us as a family to support and be involved in. So, when Maggie and I were in Charlotte I participated in my private capacity in the protests in downtown Charlotte following the shooting of Keith Scott by the police.

Americans United is not engaged in advocacy in this area, but I know and am close with many of the people involved in this struggle, so I proudly stood with them that Wednesday night. The next day, in our conversation with the folks in Charlotte, they obviously cared about the protests as well and the racial divides that characterize their city as well as all of the country. In Charlotte, we heard people express the hope that religion will not be used to harm people and that black lives really will be as valued as white lives. Indeed, as Dr. Martin Luther King reminds us, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Religious freedom is something we treasure and hold dear and will remain our primary passion. It is immensely important, and I will share this passion with all those I stand with as I struggle with them to addresses issues that are vital to them.

This is how we will build a powerful movement for religious freedom that will be inclusive and effective. This is how we will create change in our states, in our country, and in our world so that there will be religious freedom for all people and so that religion cannot be used to harm others. Let’s struggle and journey on together.

P.S. Are you a faith leader who would like to get involved with Americans United? We’d love to have you! Find out more here.