The Reverend Barry Lynn is executive director of the watchdog organization Americans United for Church and State. He is interviewed by Ron A. Lindsay, Legal Director of the Center for Inquiry / Office of Public Policy in Washington, D.C. – EDS.
Free Inquiry: In your book Piety and Politics: The Right-Wing Assault on Religious Freedom (Harmony, 2006), you strongly endorse the position that the Constitution, to borrow Jefferson’s phrase, creates “a wall of separation between church and state.” As you know, many contend that this was not the intent of the Constitution. What support do you have for your interpretation?
Barry Lynn: I love Jefferson’s metaphor, and history firmly backs up the claim that church-state separation is mandated by the Constitution. James Madison has much to teach us about this as the primary author of the First Amendment, and as such I believe his understanding can be trusted. Madison was so strict on the separation question that he vetoed a bill that would have given a church in Washington, D.C., a largely symbolic government incorporation and denied a grant of public land to a church in Mississippi. In his veto message, Madison explained that these bills violated the First Amendment. I believe this makes Madison the original opponent of “faith-based” initiatives. I’d also point to the text of the Constitution itself. Nowhere in it does it say we are a Christian nation. The First Amendment bars laws “respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Article VI bans religious tests for public office. That sounds like separation of church and state to me.
FI: Leaving the question of constitutional interpretation aside, do you think a strict separation between church and state makes for good policy and, if so, why?
Lynn: Separation is the platform on which religious and philosophical freedom rest. There can be no true freedom of conscience without it. Only separation can guarantee the right to worship or not worship as the individual sees fit. Other models just don’t protect that freedom. You are not truly free if you are forced to pay taxes that end up in the coffers of churches. You are not truly free if you or your children are compelled to say prayers in a public institution. You are not truly free if your courthouse is festooned with the symbols of the majority faith. You are not truly free if the government feels it has the right, duty, or obligation to enforce someone else’s version of orthodoxy or conditions your standing as a citizen on the basis of what you believe or do not believe about God.
FI: Many in the Religious Right take the view that, when the government is neutral between the religious and nonreligious, the government at least implicitly shows hostility toward religion because it is sending the message that religion is unimportant. How would you respond to this claim?
Lynn: It’s a weak argument. What many in the Religious Right want is for the state to be the enforcer of their religious views. They have failed to persuade people to adopt these views voluntarily, so they seek the power of the government to impose them on everyone. Their attack on the neutrality principle is an outgrowth of their persecution complex – the constant whining we hear from the Religious Right that government and society are hostile to their views. In fact, most people simply prefer not to live under an officially fundamentalist Christian government. Mandated neutrality between religion and nonreligion prevents that from happening. That’s why the Religious Right attacks the idea.
FI: Many of our readers are aware that you are the executive director of Americans United for Separation for Church and State, but some may not be aware that you are also an ordained minister. Do you believe there is any tension between your own religious beliefs and your advocacy of a strict separation between church and state?
Lynn: None whatsoever. Personally, I support separation of church and state, not because I dislike religion, but because I treasure it. My faith is important to me, and I’m happy to share it with others when asked. That’s my job as a minister. I can’t imagine anything worse than the government deciding to “help” me spread my faith. State officials are simply are not equipped to do the job, and their attempting to do it would only raise a host of problems. Government can be pretty good at some tasks--filling potholes (at least if you live in the suburbs) and conducting public-health campaigns come to mind. Endorsing or promoting religion is not something the state does well. All of history and several contemporary examples prove that. In fact, I would argue that when the government tries to promote faith even in seemingly benign ways--by stamping “In God We Trust” on our money or slipping “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, for example--it only trivializes faith.
FI:Why do you think those on the Religious Right see things so differently than you do? What motivations do they have for campaigning so vigorously for more government support for religion?
Lynn: The Religious Right makes the classic mistake every advocate of theocracy in history has made, over and over again. They assume the following: “My faith is the only correct and true one. Therefore, other beliefs are not important, and it’s only logical that the government should adopt my faith. In fact, the government must do so.” Here’s the Achilles’ heel of that assertion: adherents in about 1,500 separate religions around the globe all believe this. They can’t all be right. Jerry Falwell is obviously sincere in his insistence that he has interpreted the Bible correctly, but even some of his fellow fundamentalists disagree with some of his conclusions, and I can guarantee you that not far from where Falwell lives there is a Mormon who is absolutely sure his religion is right. I don’t want to see the government acting as some type of “theology referee,” deciding whose religion is right and whose is wrong.
FI: One of the claims we hear so often is that the courts have “expelled God from school” and that pupils cannot engage in any religious activity on school premises. Is there any truth to this claim? What religious activities, if any, can pupils engage in while at school?
Lynn: This claim is utterly bogus, and I say that not only as the executive director of Americans United but as a parent who put two kids through public schools. Children can pray on their own whenever they like. They can join with their peers for prayer in a nondisruptive fashion. They can read the Bible or other religious books during their free time. They can study about religion as an objective discipline in class. They can even incorporate religious themes into homework and other assignments if it is relevant to the topic under discussion. Finally, students in secondary schools can form religious clubs that meet during noninstructional time. These clubs must be student-run and voluntary, and attendees can pray, sing hymns, and engage in other worshipful activities. Some religion-free zone!
FI: I assume you are familiar with Noah Feldman’s book, Divided by God. Feldman certainly could not be characterized as someone on the Religious Right. Yet, although he argues that we should have a strict prohibition of any government funding of religious institutions, he states that the courts should permit religious symbols in public spaces: the crèche at city hall, the cross in the park, etc. What do you think of his argument?
Lynn: I think his argument is simplistic and misguided. It has so many problems that I’m not sure where to begin. First, the Religious Right would never accept this deal. They are getting millions through Bush’s Faith-based Initiative and aren’t likely to get off that gravy train unless the courts toss them off. Second, it’s a crummy deal for separationists, especially those of us who are religious. Allowing government to erect religious symbols promotes the worst kind of junk theology imaginable. It also makes many people feel like second-class citizens by virtue of their beliefs or nonbeliefs. That’s a huge no-no under our Constitution. Plus, we all know that people fight constantly over religion, so these symbols are in no way unifying. They belong at houses of worship. As I say in my book, erecting a cross at city hall makes about as much sense as putting a tax assessor’s office in the lobby of a church.
FI: The Bush administration’s Faith-based Initiative is funneling millions of dollars to programs run by religious institutions. However, the government claims this funding is appropriate because the programs provide secular services. What do you think of this rationale?
Lynn: Americans United has challenged several of these programs that are in no way secular. The fact is, the Faith-based Initiative has become a slush fund for Bush to reward his fundamentalist allies for their political support. What else could explain grants to someone like Pat Robertson? We need to shut down the Faith-based office and get government out of the business of paying for piety.
FI: What motivated you to write this book at this time? Do you believe there is any danger of erosion in the wall of separation between church and state?
Lynn: I’ve been involved in protecting civil liberties all of my adult life. I’ve never seen the situation this bad. Religious Right leaders are running amok in the halls of Congress and the White House. They interfere in our personal lives in unprecedented and unwelcome ways. (Remember Terri Schiavo?) I am weary of their gay bashing. I am weary of their crude attacks on nonbelievers. I am weary of their constant effort to sneak their bogus “creation science” into our schools. I am weary of their meddling in the most intimate areas of our private lives. I am weary of their attempts to politicize houses of worship. I am weary of all that they do.
I wrote the book in part to explain the separationist position in simple language that anyone can grasp. I also wrote it unabashedly as a man of faith. That is important in a nation as religious as this one. I am thankful every day for the leadership of those in the secularist community. Our challenge is to bring more religious people into this struggle, or we’re toast.
FI: In the next few years, what do you think the greatest challenges will be for those working to preserve the separation of church and state?
Lynn: We face a lot of problems in the federal courts. Bush has already put two men on the Supreme Court whom I do not believe are likely to be with us on these issues. He may get to add one more. The lower federal courts are also being stacked with men and women who please Jerry Falwell but not you and me. The courts have traditionally been our last defense in protecting the church-state wall. If we lose them, we are in for some rough sledding.
FI: One of the interesting things about your book is the wealth of examples of misquotes and misstatements made by members of the Religious Right -- many of them, unfortunately, coming in the context of personal attacks on you. Do you ever get frustrated with these distortions? How do you cope with them?
Lynn: Because the Religious Right lacks a sound argument grounded in history or law, its leaders must rely on personal attacks. I knew when I took this job that I could not be thin-skinned, and in fact my previous jobs defending opponents of the draft during the post-Vietnam era and working for the American Civil Liberties Union made my hide very thick.
I am used to being attacked by the far Right, and I usually ignore them. Sometimes a more aggressive stance is called for. For example, Pat Robertson has stated on several occasions that I am such an extremist that I believe a municipal fire department should not be able to put out a fire at a church! Every time he says this on the air, I send him a letter telling him I do not believe this and asking him to correct the record. Of course, he lacks the intellectual honesty to do so. On the more positive side, a Christian Coalition activist once accused me of saying that I want to remove crosses from church steeples because they are divisive. I contacted him, told him I never said this, and to his credit he immediately issued a correction.
As for how I cope, that’s easy. Every year I travel the country, speaking to AU chapters, in houses of worship, at colleges, before humanist events, and other venues. Getting out and meeting people and seeing their support for these issues never fails to recharge my batteries and invigorate me for the next fight. In short, I’m a kind of vampire: I feed on your energy and activism.
FI: You have been executive director of Americans United for almost fifteen years. During that time, what do you believe were the organization’s greatest successes? What disappointments have you experienced during that time?
Lynn: We’ve had many successes. We helped block several school-prayer amendments, were instrumental in defeated misguided voucher referenda in many states, blocked bills to allow church-based politicking in Congress, and pioneered many courtroom victories, to name just a few highlights. Most recently, I’m very proud of the role we played in stopping “intelligent design” in Dover, Pennsylvania. I’m also proud of the AU members and supporters who served as plaintiffs in that case. It’s extremely gratifying to be able to come into a community and play an important role defending church-state separation locally and create precedents that can be used to assist others in different parts of the country. Of course, we’ve seen defeats. The failure to keep Clarence Thomas off the Supreme Court was a heartbreaker. It was such a close vote. We saw the Supreme Court declare vouchers constitutional in the Simmons-Harris case. And, while we stopped Congress from passing the Faith-based Initiative, Bush has implemented some of it anyway through executive orders and regulatory changes. Even when we’ve lost, I take solace in the realization that we never backed down from a fight and always put forth our best effort.
FI: What is the one question about church-state relations that you would like answered?
Lynn: I want a Religious Right-style Christian to answer these questions for me: When, in the history of the world, has a union of church and state ever been a good thing? Will you please name even one instance where such a combination improved the lot of the church and led to a real flowering of religious liberty for all? By the way, I’m not holding my breath for an answer.