Institute on Religion and Democracy
October 10, 2000
If you take his warnings seriously, America today is like Iran of 1979, with the Ayatollah arriving at the airport, and the mullahs about to erect their reign of terror. Barry Lynn and his Americans United for the Separation of Church and State want us to believe that religious conservatives represent the greatest danger to domestic tranquility and freedom. Lynn, who is himself an ordained minister, believes that theocracy is a constant threat to American democracy.
Lynn’s rhetoric is usually boilerplate, fundraising-letter prose. But his claim to be a champion of religious freedom is accepted uncritically by the media, who flock in large droves to his critiques of the Religious Right. His searing condemnations of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson are widely published. And his face will be recognized by any regular viewer of the all news stations.
Apocalyptic warnings from Lynn both infuriate and amuse his targets. He portrays them as all powerful and almost invincible. This is news to culturally besieged religious conservatives, who are largely shut out of every institution of influence in America besides the ones they themselves have created, i.e. churches, religious schools and religious publications. Lynn’s main target, the Christian Coalition, is widely perceived to be in decline, which must frustrate the coalition’s main critic, who will have to identify a new enemy to berate.
But Lynn gets great mileage out of portraying cultural elites as persecuted underdogs and religious conservatives as their persecutors. And his own agenda, although he does little to hide it, is rarely examined extensively. If we are to take his words seriously, Lynn desires an America where everyone can read pedophile pornography, where the sensitive ears of non-believers are never assaulted by public prayers, where tax dollars subsidize blasphemous art, where churches and synagogues are taxed, where every 13 year old can get an abortion without parental consent, where politicians may not mention the name of God, where homosexuals can marry each other and stigmatize their opponents as bigots, and where everyone may do virtually everything they want to do, except publicly apply their own traditional religious beliefs towards any public policy issue.
Lynn’s Americans United for the Separation for Church and State was founded 50 years ago, mostly by liberal Protestants and secularists who wanted to fight Roman Catholic influence, especially in the form of parochial schools. Like so many organizations, it was further radicalized by the 1960’s, adopting abortion rights, gay rights, pornography protection and a host of other causes to its supposed “church-state” concerns. Its fears of Roman Catholicism expanded to fears of all traditional religion, although conservative Evangelicals and Catholics remain its chief bugaboos.
Before becoming a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, Lynn attended Boston University’s seminary and was ordained into the United Church of Christ. The most liberal of America’s mainline denominations, the UCC marries gays, ordains witches, and prefers sit-ins (just name the cause) to evangelistic rallies. It’s also been one of the fastest imploding churches, having lost about 40 percent of its members in 35 years. Lynn worked mostly as a church agency staffer and lobbyist rather than an actual local church pastor. He no doubt embodies the UCC leadership’s far-left theological liberalism and hostility to traditional religious belief.
Most recently Lynn has castigated Democrat Vice Presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, for talking about God during the campaign. Although Lieberman’s references to the deity are vague and nonsectarian, Lynn accused the senator of potentially “contributing to a climate that does irreparable harm.” In a letter to Lieberman, he expressed fear that “religious rhetoric in this campaign” might spin “dangerously out of control.”
Lynn was delighted when the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled against any public prayers at high school football games. But he is concerned about Christian public school students who continue to gather around flag poles in the morning for prayer. Although he grudgingly admits that such prayer is legal, Lynn warns parents that the prayer events are “run by fundamentalists seeking to win converts.” Hence, “some parents might prefer that their children not take part,” an AU press release warned.
Other AU causes of recent years have included backing the National Endowment for the Arts when that agency was funding crucifixes dipped in urine, among other “art” works. AU also filed suit against New York City when it attempted to de-fund a museum that featured a dung-splattered Virgin Mary. In other words, government must not sympathize with religion, but it may openly ridicule it.
AU professes to be devoted to the First Amendment’s religion cause: “Congress shall make no laws respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” But AU’s interest is limited to the first clause, with almost none ever invested in the second. When an AU trustee challenged his fellow board members in the early1990’s about the lack of interest in protecting religious expression, he reported that some board members responded with groans. His resignation letter said: “AU’s interest in free exercise [of religion] is virtually non-existent.”
His impression was confirmed when, in 1999, AU backed a Federal Communications Commission proposal that would restrict a religious TV station from devoting more than 50 percent of its programming to “proselytizing.” Lynn even called the 50 percent proposal “quite generous.”
When Lynn was opposing legislation that would permit religious themes in public school memorial services, he warned of religion’s potentially toxic effect. Bizarrely, he speculated the Columbine High School killers suffered “alienation” and went berserk because they had been exposed to religion at school. “We know from experience that school-sponsored religious displays and worship invariably make some students feel like second-class citizens.”
Predictably, Lynn salutes court decisions that silence prayers at school events or censor words about God in state mottoes. He doesn’t want the Ten Commandments to appear on any public property. Naturally he’s opposed to any form of school vouchers that may involve religious schools. He’s also against government support for religious hospitals or day care centers if they retain any iota of fidelity to their original religious identity. Earlier this year, AU joined the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Organization of Women and Planned Parenthood in filing suit year against the City of St. Petersburg, Florida for supporting a local Catholic hospital that refuses to conduct abortions. “Public services should never be forced to conform to religious dictates,” Lynn intoned.
Lynn would like Congress to fire its chaplains. But he has spoken in defense of wiccans (i.e. witches) preserving their right to “worship” on U.S. military bases. When a Family Research Council publication complained about a Hindu priest having delivered the invocation before a joint session of Congress, AU blasted the FRC for its “intolerance” and attracted widespread media attention. A jittery FRC withdrew the article. Unreported was the fact that Lynn’s news release was retribution for a planned FRC article on Lynn’s endorsement of a homosexual film festival, whose chief features were to be pornographic. His ACLU past clearly in mind, Lynn not only defends the legality of all pornography, he is loath even to admit that it is morally undesirable. As an ACLU lawyer, Lynn defended the publishing rights of child pornographers, and even suggested that masochists should have access to “material that depict or affirm their lifestyle [as] a means of self-affirmation.” In 1987, when still with the ACLU, Lynn won a “First Amendment” award from the Playboy Foundation for his defense of pornography.
Lynn’s statements and news releases are often sneery. When the U.S. House of Representatives approved a resolution supporting the display of “In God We Trust” posters, Lynn cattily responded: “Having ‘In God We Trust’ over the Speaker’s chair didn’t keep Newt Gingrich from committing adultery.” When Jerry Fallwell’s newspaper published an article, based upon The Washington Post and other mainstream media, that homosexual activists were claiming one of the “Teletubbies” as one of their own, Lynn pounced. As AU's highly successful news release portrayed it, the television preacher was “outing” the effeminate but still fictional character of a children’s program. “Who’s Falwell going to out next, Winnie the Pooh?,” Lynn sarcastically asked. “Or maybe, Barney; he’s purple you know.”
Lynn’s lobs against already stigmatized televangelists are gobbled up by news media, eager for confirmation of their own stereotypes. His opposition to any government cooperation with Catholic ministries is also accepted as merely an issue of church-state concerns. But rarely if ever do media explore the underlying ideology of AU, or ask the question: Are AU and the Rev. Lynn simply trying to discredit and eradicate any public influence for traditional religious believers?
For example, a large chuck of AU’s web site is devoted to harsh critiques and advice on how to counteract the Promise Keepers. The evangelical spiritual movement for men is carefully apolitical, emphasizing prayer and evangelism. But because some of its leaders have friends who are friends with somebody who may have spoken to Pat Robertson five or ten years ago, it is considered a legitimate target. According to AU, Promise Keepers is “setting up military-style ‘accountability groups’ that undermine the authority of local pastors” while “demanding that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons convert to heterosexuality.” AU’s hostility to Promise Keepers strongly hints that counter-acting any vibrant form of orthodox Christianity, and not just constructing a high wall between church and state, is AU’s actual goal.
Lynn has explained that his life’s calling began in the late 1960’s when a college roommate’s girlfriend left the country to obtain an abortion. “And that was what triggered me worrying about what damage it does for our country’s fabric, to have religious decisions guide a country’s policy. That is not a good idea.” Lynn claims to have “very, very traditional religious beliefs,” his support for gay “marriage,” abortion on demand, and every form of pornography notwithstanding. He lives quietly in Virginia with his wife and children, and his television and personal appearances show a man who is invariably good-natured. By most accounts, he has been a successful executive director of AU, a $3.7 million organization, with about 60,000 donors and a staff of 25 in Washington, DC.
Lynn’s comes out of a liberal mainline Protestant background. Seventh Day Adventists and anti-Catholic Baptists have also played a strong role in AU’s past. But a number of AU leaders have been quite explicit about their overall hostility to religion in general. When the “Humanist Manifesto II” was published in 1973, a number of persons who were then or later became staff or board members of AU added their signatures. That declaration condemned belief in the supernatural as “either meaningless or irrelevant,” insisting that “promises of immortal salvation are both illusory and harmful” because “they distract humans from present concerns from self-actualization, and from rectifying social injustices.” A current editor of AU’s magazine, Church and State, calls himself a “secular humanist.” And the same writers who appear in Church and State also appear in The Humanist magazine.
AU works closely with groups like the National Abortion Federation, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, People for the American Way, Planned Parenthood and Penthouse International. All of these organizations joined with AU in the early 1990’s as part of the “Radical Right Task Force” to counteract religious conservatives.
A list of organizations that AU leaders have recently cooperated with, as found in AU’s annual report, includes an almost amusing list of religious disbelievers, including a host of Unitarian Universalist groups, the New England Skeptical Society, the Council for Secular Humanism, the Atlanta Freethought Society, Freedom from Religion Foundation, and the National Capital Area Skeptics. AU’s board has included officers from the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights, the National Education Association the American Humanist Association, the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Council of Churches.
Of course, for all AU’s concern about church/state issues, it is strangely quiet about the partisan jockeyings of left-wing church groups such as the National Council of Churches, who are reliable allies in AU’s drive to secularize America.
The history of the last century has shown that rabid secularism, and not theocracy, has been the main threat to democracy and freedom around the world. And theocracy has not been known in the (once) Christian West in nearly three centuries. Americans need not worry about any potential ayatollahs. But we should worry about the Barry Lynns and groups like AU, which wish to expunge all visible religious influence from the public arena.