This morning Barry Lynn, a minister and lawyer and the high-profile executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, took the stage to talk about how separation is the cornerstone of our religious freedom.
He was incisive and humorous (as Charles Scriven later described) and his point was very clearly made.
He took us through a little history, showing how historical revisionism (especially in recent decades) has made us think that our nation was built on the Christian tradition, with our “God bless Americas” and our public prayers and our politicians publicizing their faith.
“We were never founded as a Christian nation,” said Lynn, “and we are not a Christian nation. The US Constitution did not create a Christian nation.”
The only place where the Constitution mentions religion is where it says that religion should not preclude anyone running for office.
Lynn talked about how religion has played a role in the presidential campaign. “I don’t think it has been useful or healthy,” he said. “I would like to blame the media, the Republican party, the Democratic party, mainline churches – in other words, I would like to blame pretty much everybody.”
He went through moments of the campaign where religion nosed in, going way back to the beginning (“when dinosaurs were still walking around my back yard”).
When Senator Fred Thompson of Tennessee entered the race, top investigative reporters worked to find out whether he went to church. (“The answer was ‘sometimes’,” Lynn said.)
In an early debate on CNN, candidates were asked what they pray about. “Hillary joked that she’d like to lose a few pounds,” Lynn said. “You can see where that got her.”
In the Republican YouTube debate, candidates were asked whether they literally believed in the Bible. “Rudy Giuliani said he did not believe the Bible completely literally – that he did not believe Jonah was literally swallowed by a whale. You can see where that got him.”
He quoted “troubling” comments made by Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama.
Lynn compared the questions asked of Mormon candidate Mitt Romney and the questions asked of late Catholic candidate John F. Kennedy.
When he was running for president, Kennedy said he believed in an America with an absolute separation of church and state, where no Catholic prelate would tell a president what to do and no Protestant pastor would tell a congregation how to vote.
Lynn noted that it is hard to imagine a candidate saying that today; even though 20 million Americans are agnostics, atheists, or other religions – not Christians.
“What bothers me is that we now have a party that seems to be doing what the Republican party has been doing for about the last eight election cycles: organizing along religious lines,” Lynn said.
And then he went on to talk about churches.
“The biggest threat to religious freedom in this country is the so-called religious right,” he said.
He punctured the idea that the religious right is dead, spouting the numbers (in the millions) of how much different religious right groups – supported by 18% to 21% of Americans – have raised in the last year.
He talked about how the religious right is “breathing new life” into John McCain’s campaign, and how they forced the choice of Sarah Palin as vice presidential candidate. “They revere Palin as a kind of cross between Mother Teresa and Ronald Reagan,” he said, to big laughs.
Lynn talked about different troubling beliefs held by the religious right.
First, the religious right finds it dangerous that public schools try to engage in critical thinking.
Second, the idea that “if it was good enough for Abraham, then it was good enough for me” as the old song goes. He said using the Old Testament as a basis for a political agenda can be dangerous. It can lead to things like taking away the rights of gays and lesbians.
Third, the religious right has a “we are persecuted” theme. Lynn mentioned a book by David Limbaugh (Rush’s older brother) about all the persecution endured by the chosen – like not being allowed to erect a nativity scene on the lawn of the Town Hall (never mind all the empty church lawns).
Fourth, the willingness to disobey laws they disagree with. Here Lynn mentioned a topic he always comes back to: the tax code says no non-profits can use their resources to support or oppose any candidate for office. Yes, they can explore issues but cannot endorse.
He gave examples of churches endorsing candidates, and the legal battles his organization undertakes against them.
Lynn closed his talk with the statement that he does wish more churches were willing to talk about the Constitution and religious freedom.
Response by Charles Scriven
Charles Scriven, president of Kettering College of Medical Arts, then got up to respond to Lynn’s address.
He started with a disclaimer, saying he approached his job as responder from a position of inferiority, not being a regular on the O’Reilly Factor and other such well-known programs. He said: “I’ll call you Barry, and you can call me Mr. Scriven.”
Scriven said he agreed with many of Lynn’s points. He said he agrees that the religious right is a vacuous movement, and he has little sympathy for the religious right – finding a bit of sympathy is a little like trying to find the pearl of great price, he said.
He agrees that the separation of church and state is the cornerstone of religious freedom.
He agrees that saying “God Bless America” is ridiculous, because it suggests that God thinks we are better than anyone else.
But his basic rebuttal was that promoting equality in a society where money is given out to a wide variety of organizations may mean allowing religious organizations to have a piece of the pie.
He pointed out that the Constitution does not set out to marginalize or demonize the religious witness, but to protect us so we can flourish and so we can say what we believe.
The First Amendment does not exclude religion – it just means religious groups must be treated fairly and not be given preferential treatment.
The many different traditions across the country are what make the marketplace of ideas bustle. And that is what helps us to make advances – to move forward.
Following Scriven’s response, the floor was opened to questions, and a variety of people put forward their passionate opinions about religious freedom and separation.
Scriven was asked about the lawsuit Columbia Union College was involved in, and he briefly told how CUC sued to get state funds that were given to public and private educational institutions across the state – including Catholic schools – but had been refused to CUC. The suit was eventually won, but Scriven said he left CUC “under a cloud” (he was the president of the college at the time) because taking the suit was “against the express wishes of the Adventist bureaucracy.”
Lynn said he took a different perspective on that litigation. He believes there is something fundamentally different between religion and every other pursuit of the human spirit. He said the answer is that no Catholic schools should have gotten funds either. That would eliminate discrimination.
Many eloquent questioners took a turn at the microphone, but the session closed as smells of lunch wafted through the conference room. Read a Spectrum interview with Barry Lynn here.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/1006