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Culture Warrior or Anti-Christ? An Interview with Reverend Barry Lynn

By David McNair
October 05, 2004

If Barry Lynn had his way, he'd go fishing and see more movies. But as long as the Religious Right keeps trying to turn America into a theocracy, the 54-year-old executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AU) says he'll continue to stand in their way.

"I agree with Pat Buchanan that there is a cultural war for the soul of America," Lynn said. "He was right. A rare moment, but he was right. I didn't start that war. I would like people to be left alone. See, I do believe that, if in fact people were not out there trying to create a theocracy, we would get along."

Lynn's opponents, however, leave little hope of reconciliation, countering that it's Lynn and the AU who started the war. They believe if the AU (and the ACLU) were not out there attacking religious expression, specifically Christian religious expression, then teachers, public officials, school children and churches would not be so afraid of expressing their faith in public. In fact, many religious conservatives believe that Lynn's motives are sinister in nature and view him as a kind of Anti-Christ. ("Yes, I am aware of that," Lynn said. "I get emails.") According to Roger Moran, a member of the Southern Baptist Convention's executive committee who claims to have researched AU extensively, "Some people, including members of churches that back AU, think it's a mostly Christian group that wants to protect the church from the state. But there's always been a strong element in the group who regard Christianity with contempt."

Barry Lynn received a bachelor's degree in 1970 from Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania and a theology degree from Boston University School of Theology in 1973. In addition to being an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, he is a member of the Washington, D.C. bar, earning his law degree from Georgetown University Law Center in 1978. Before becoming executive director of the AU in 1992, Lynn held a variety of positions related to religious liberty concerns. From 1984 to 1991, he was legislative counsel for the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union, where he frequently worked on church-state issues. And from 1974 to 1980, Lynn served in a variety of positions with the national offices of the United Church of Christ.

Lynn has also become somewhat of a media darling, appearing on TV and radio shows or being quoted in print almost every time there is a church-state issue in the news. Lynn has appeared frequently on the nation's most watched news programs, including The MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour, The Today Show, Nightline, Fox Morning News, Crossfire, The Phil Donahue Show, Meet the Press, CBS Morning News, Good Morning America, NBC Nightly News, ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News and Larry King Live. He is also a weekly commentator on church-state issues for UPI Radio and served for two years as regular co-host of "Pat Buchanan and Company" on the Mutual Broadcasting System.

Recently, Lynn took a break from his busy schedule to do a phone interview with OldSpeak about why he thinks The Rutherford Institute is misguided about its understanding of the separation of church and state; why the AU spends so much time attacking religious expression instead of defending it; why he thinks America is in danger of becoming a theocracy; and what he would say to a roomful of religious conservatives if he had the chance.

DM: In the past, you've characterized The Rutherford Institute as a highly-politicized, ultra-conservative Christian organization and even accused John Whitehead of "not being honest in his description of his organization." How would you characterize the Institute today?

Barry Lynn: I think The Rutherford Institute has taken strong and important pro-civil rights positions on some issues, including the war on terror and some free speech questions. But on the separation of church and state, I think the Institute still has a profoundly misguided view of what the framers intended the First Amendment to say about religion.

DM: What's misguided about it?

BL: I think it is painfully clear that the framers of the Constitution would have opposed such initiatives as vouchers for religious schools, which effectively funnel tax dollars into religious organizations and their ministries. I think whenever you are talking about government officials and their expressions of religion, one must be more cognizant of the appearance of an official endorsement of religion. So when John Ashcroft has prayer sessions at the start of every day in the Justice Department, it is not, in my view, a free exercise of religion question. It is a question of whether he has given the appearance, in his official capacity as Attorney General, that he is promoting Christianity and making others feel like second-class religious citizens if they do not participate. So the distinction is that sometimes I think The Rutherford Institute's view of free speech and free exercise ignores the important constraints created by the constitutional principle of no establishment, which means no promotion of religion by government or government officials.

DM: Sometimes I wonder if the AU is really interested in protecting religious freedom. Wouldn't it be better to spend more time promoting and protecting religious expression, even if it goes to extremes at times, instead of constantly attacking what you consider the government establishment of a religion?

BL: I don't think there is a huge war against Christianity or religious expression in general in this country. I think that the notion espoused by people like David Limbaugh that there is persecution of Christians in this country is absolutely ludicrous. His most recent book, as well as the writings of many on the so-called Religious Right, grossly misinterprets the culture of our time. To suggest that it's a persecution of Christians because a second grader is not allowed to pass out candy in the shape of a candy cane along with a Jesus story doesn't represent anything but prudent judgment on the part of school officials. You don't give candy to potentially diabetic children without their parent's permission. Secondly, it is not an age appropriate distribution of literature in the second grade to have polemical—perhaps sincere, but nonetheless polemical—discussions about religious conversion sent home with children. It might be different in high school; it certainly would be different in college. But this idea that elementary school children should be allowed to pass out anything they want to their school mates is, I think, not consistent with the demands of the First Amendment and, in fact, runs counter to the notion of what the separation of church and state is all about.

DM: So they should be restricted from passing out this kind of candy at Easter or Christmas, even though other kids are handing out candy?

BL: I don't think there is a constitutional right to distribute religious material in elementary schools, even if the distribution is by students. I think the Constitution recognizes restrictions in time, place and manner that the First Amendment is not absolute. I don't know anyone who thinks it's literally absolute that you can never restrict any expression at all. The Attorney General of the United States does not have to hold prayer sessions in his office. They could be held at a site outside the department building. Similarly, a city council that wants to have a prayer before its meeting could, and in fact in many communities does, have the prayer in private before the official business. I think normal adult human beings can find ways to express their religious faith and convictions without making a show of it and by doing it in concert with their official governmental duties.

DM: You say you believe there is no real persecution of Christians in America. However, at The Rutherford Institute, we see it on a daily basis. Everything from corporations refusing to accommodate someone's religious beliefs, to school officials suspending a Muslim girl for wearing a religious headscarf, to someone taking issue with a picture of Jesus on a co-worker's desk.

BL: An issue like that raises the question of who the person is. Let's say it's someone working for the Internal Revenue Service—and these are real cases in the federal government—who has a Jesus picture on his desk. You come in because you're being audited. Your name is Silverstein, and one of your charitable tax deductions is to a major synagogue. The person who is about to audit you has a gigantic picture of Jesus on his desk. Might you feel that perhaps you will be treated differently because you are a non-Christian? I think that is a very real concern. And in that instance, I would say putting a giant Jesus picture on your desk would be inappropriate. But if you are working for the Department of Labor as a numbers cruncher in the back office and you don't have any direct contact with the public, then I would say that you can put your Jesus picture on your desk. Thus, the more interaction you have with the public and the more that the promotion of religion could be viewed as putting the beneficiary or the client or the defendant in a sense of fear that he or she will be discriminated against because of the different religions, then I think that the constitutional calculus does in fact change.

DM: Do you believe at this stage in our history that there is a serious danger of a theocracy rising up in America?

BL: Absolutely. It took me years to be willing to use the word theocracy. By theocracy, I mean a government run along narrow religious lines relying on religious law to guide its governance. I think people like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson would like to see the United States base its decisions not on the Constitution but on religious law, which includes a literal reading and interpretation of the Christian Bible. This means that in matters of faith and morals, laws would be written based on their understanding of Christian theology.

DM: Was there a particular moment in your life when you saw this as a real threat, or is it something that evolved over time?

BL: I think it evolved over time. There was no eureka moment when I said, "My goodness, they're really into a theocracy." I realized it a bit when I was in college and was working on civil rights issues and on questions of the war in Vietnam. Then one of my roommates had to go to England with his fiance in order to have an abortion. I asked why they didn't just get an abortion in the United States. He pointed that, even then, which would have been the late 1960s, there were a lot of states that prohibited abortions. I thought then, as I do now, that as important a moral issue as this is, it is essentially a religious one. It is an issue about when life begins, a profound philosophical and theological point, but not one that is resolvable by science. So that was an awakening on my part that powerful religious interests were restricting a woman's right to make an essential moral choice. It is important to understand that I believe morality is only possible when you have an opportunity to choose to do that which is right and reject that which is evil or wrong and that the struggle of moral decision-making is corrupted or eliminated if government says you must do or read or watch certain things. Once they get into that, you have lost any sense of moral choice and the soul of humanity is literally at stake.

DM: But couldn't you argue that a world without religious morals would be far more dangerous?

BL: I can assure you that a world without morals would be horrendous. And I think in a profound sense that this country acts, again by my standards, in an immoral way in many instances. I think it is absurd for the wealthiest country in the history of the world to be having battles over what percentage of kids should be covered by health care programs in Texas. Morally speaking, we must make a commitment to help those who are in the greatest need. And if we have to fight about what percentage of children in poverty should be helped, I think we are in a real moral crisis. I believe we have to make moral decisions, but I don't think those judgments have to be from a religious perspective. I think there are plenty of very good non-believers and very good believers and a lot of bad people in both categories. So, I do think we need a moral structure. I think politicians should describe and discuss the moral center out of which they operate. But platform statements are not theological treatises, and they should not discuss theological matters. My friends on the conservative end often say, "But Barry, isn't it important to know the heart of a candidate?" And I say, "Yes." But we don't need to see their capillaries. It's enough to know that they have some principles out of which they are operating.

DM: Isn't it the hypocrisy of many of the positions, comments and activities of prominent people on the Religious Right that infuriates you more than any violation of what you believe to be the separation of church and state?

BL: Let me put it this way. The Gospels talk a lot more, and do so negatively, about hypocrisy than about abortion or gays, whereas Jesus doesn't comment on either one. But he does talk about hypocrites. So hypocrisy does trouble me. And it troubles me also when people who conduct themselves as if they were better, holier or more ethically purer than others turn out to be just like the rest of us, with all our human failings. I think pointing out a little hypocrisy is okay. But I don't like to wallow in it because I don't try to get into these personal conflicts. For example, take Pat Buchanan and Oliver North. I have done years of radio with them. Although I think they have a lot of wrong-headed principles, I also think they are two of the most principled people in the country. They happen to be erroneous most of the time, but they are principled. I wish I could be convinced that Jerry Falwell is in that category, but I can't because when a man repeatedly says on television and to the New York Times things like, Barry Lynn is not an ordained minister, that is just a lie. When he says that Barry Lynn has never preached a sermon in his life, that is a lie. He says that I am working as a stalking horse for the Democratic National Committee when, in fact, to my knowledge, I haven't spoken to anyone in the Democratic National Committee for four years. When you correct a person—as I have with Fed-Ex packages and documents and certificates—and he continues to repeat the same lie, I consider that irresponsible. And as a Christian, I think that is unbiblical. That troubles me a great deal because I don't conduct myself that way. And frankly, I don't think other people should, either.

DM: I?m going to pin that hypocrisy label on you a bit here. In a recent Washington Post editorial, you characterized AU as "politically even-handed when it comes to targeting churches and religious leaders." However, in the resource section of AU's website, called Religious Right Research, the first sentence says that "the single greatest threat in church state separation in America is the movement known as the Religious Right." And looking through the site, a large majority of the press releases appear to be a kind of ongoing argument with Republicans and the Religious Right. They attack all the traditionally conservative issues such as Faith Based Initiative, school vouchers, the Pledge of Allegiance, the anti-gay rhetoric, the Ten Commandments issues and the teaching of creationism. It appears as though you are attacking a specific movement, which doesn't seem very "even-handed" to me.

BL: In the Post, I explained that AU had gone back over all the complaints for the last eight or ten years, and something like 40% were about religious institutions endorsing Democrats. I am a consistent critic of activities that I don't like, whether it's Democrats or Republicans or Independents doing it. But my core interest is in the preservation of the separation of church and state. Unfortunately, more Republicans have abandoned the principle than Democrats. But as I say in almost every speech, the separation of church and state is under-defended by both political parties.

DM: Isn't it true that if the Religious Right didn't exist, you would be out of a job?

BL: Yes, I would love that. In fact, I would go fishing. If the other side would just go away, I would be happy to go away. And then I'd be able to see more movies. But remember, I didn't start this war. We would all get along much better if nobody was trying to enlist government in support of their position on matters of faith and morals.

DM: Isn't that extremely idealistic? Throughout the world, don't certain religions wield tremendous influence on the state?

BL: Yes, but that's true mainly in countries where religion and government are in bed together. It is not true in Germany, although they technically have a religion tax that you generally pay, although there is a way to get out of it. But nobody goes to church. In Norway, there is an official religion, but nobody goes to church. One of the great corruptions in the church is its proximity to the state. If you look at countries where religion and government are not close, you find exactly what I just described—a place, in general, where people get along.

DM: Do you really think the enemy is the Religious Right? Don't you think Corporate America has far more power and influence in shaping the cultural landscape and driving government policy than religion does?

BL: I think there are major threats that large corporate interests pose to the notion of democracy and freedom in this country. There is no doubt that corporate interests will sometimes utilize religion in a sleazy way. But whether religion is used in a manipulative way or by a true believer to change government practices, if it is interfering with fundamental constitutional rights, it's wrong.

DM: How would you say that the corrupting influence of religion is a greater threat to our democracy than the corrupting influence of corporate interests?

BL: First of all, I would never say it is religion as such. It is certain religious movements, including the Religious Right, which I think is a bigger threat to individual freedom than corporate interests. But trust me, corporate interests do a lot of terrible things with or without the help of religion that disturb me, and I take more than a passing interest in that. Their ultimate agenda is about bottom lines, not about creating a theocracy.

DM: Isn't that a greater threat to our culture?

BL: What I am saying is that I think the so-called Religious Right is a greater threat to personal freedoms in a sense of choosing your faith and answering morals questions for yourself. But I think that Corporate America has a great deal of explaining to do before it can convince me that it has the best interests of all Americans in mind.

DM: Recently, I was reading your co-worker Rob Boston's book about Pat Robertson, which is called The Most Dangerous Man in America, and I noticed that the rhetoric was very alarmist. For example, he says that the book is "designed as a warning — an intolerable extremist comes perilously close to holding the reigns on American politics." It seems very over the top.

BL: It's only over the top if it is not true, but I think it is. I think the so-called Religious Right poses a tremendous threat to individual freedom in this country and if the Religious Right went away, that threat would not be there. People say the anti-choice movement is not all religious. But the basic threat to reproductive choice—birth control and abortion—is the group of people waving Bibles around, not people waving sonograms or the Constitution. It is the people who have a religious agenda.

DM: But doesn't everybody get involved? I think what also fuels the fire are pro-choice people who just think about it as a right and don't bother thinking about the philosophical or moral or religious aspects of the issue.

BL: No. I don't agree.

DM: I have met many pro-choice people who shy away from the moral and philosophical aspects of abortion.

BL: I would have to respectfully disagree with that. I think that all the leaders of the pro-choice movement, Gloria Feldt and Kate Michelman, until she stepped down, are people who in conversation after conversation over the years have always sat and talked to me about the fact that they think these are important moral questions and that yes, they do want to defend the right to choose. I suppose there are people who don't think for a second and go out and have an abortion. They may be there, but I think for most people this is a very serious, thoughtful consideration. To take the choice away, to take the moral instinct out of the hand of the individual woman and put it in the hand of some largely male legislation, is wrong. If it comes down to making a choice between a woman's moral choice or the opinion of the legislature of any state in this country, I am going to go with that individual woman every single time because I know they are more likely to make a sound moral choice.

DM: What about the man's say in the matter?

BL: They can have a say. They just don't get to play the trump card.

DM: For religious conservatives, many of whom might be reading this interview, you are a kind of anti-Christ.

BL: I am aware of that.

DM: It's a powerful feeling among religious conservatives. They see you as someone who is trying to remove God from public life and remove the public from God. What could you say to a room full of religious conservatives to ease their minds? Or would you even bother trying?

BL: This comes up with some frequency. My response to a religious audience would be that God does not need the help of the government at any level in order to work his will in the world. If you believe that God exists, then the actions of some government bureaucrat are hardly going to interfere with that agenda. I think the very best single thing that government can ever do to religion is to simply leave it alone. We will be okay. We are thriving. And I say to secular audiences that the real threat, if there is a threat to any group in this country based on their religious beliefs, is to those in the audience that have no religious beliefs. Those are the people affected by a poll I saw the other day in which a very high percentage of Americans said they wouldn't vote for an atheist for president. Whether they could explain exactly why not is unclear, but they wouldn't. That's a group that is still allowed to be the victim of second-class status created by government so Christians don't have to worry about losing their ability to worship. But people always say, well, you know, there was this case where this little girl couldn't read her Bible on the school bus. And I say, yeah, it was a case that lasted for one day! It was a stupid decision by one bureaucrat. It was clearly wrong. I don't know if the little girl talked to The Rutherford Institute or another group, but it took one day to get it resolved. If she or her mom had called me, I would have done the same thing. I would have called the school principal and said, "You must allow this girl to read her Bible on the school bus. You can read Danielle Steele on the school bus, and she can read the Bible." Do people ever make errors that affect the rights of people? Of course, they do. But it is certainly not an organized effort, and it is certainly not successful. We have a dizzying level of religious freedom in this country. We have tremendous diversity. And if we just spent time talking to each other about our differences and trying to point out how we are right and somebody else is wrong on theological matters instead of trying to enlist the government in aid of our theological missions, I think we would be a lot better off.




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