It is the morning of October 3, and the Capitol Hill offices of Americans United for Separation of Church and State are buzzing with the frenetic energy of a major event. Just two hours earlier President Bush announced his nominee to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor: Harriet Miers.
Staffers scurry about as phones ring and fax machines saw off page after page of material. And the question on everyone’s mind is, Who the heck is Harriet Miers?
A scheduled Doublethink interview with Barry Lynn, executive director of AU, is postponed while he joins a conference call on Miers with fellow liberal activists.
When he emerges an hour later, Lynn is upbeat, though he doesn’t have much to say.
“We literally know nothing about her, so Americans United doesn’t have a position yet,” he says, then adds with a grin, “We know this much: The right-wingers are not happy.”
Lynn is owlish-looking and mild-mannered, a seemingly typical specimen of the Washington white-collar professional. You’d never guess this 57-year-old lawyer has been a leading figure in the culture wars that have roiled the United States for the last two decades. As head of the nonprofit Americans United, he struggles daily to keep what legal scholars call the “wall of separation” between religion and government as high and as forbidding as possible.
Since Lynn took charge in 1992, AU has had a hand in virtually every public controversy where that wall could conceivably be breached. Prayer in schools, nativity scenes at city halls, school vouchers, and Supreme Court nominations: Americans United has been there. And it always takes the side of the secular, liberal left against the religious, conservative right.
The nonprofit’s biggest case has been the well-known Alabama Ten Commandments case, Glassroth v. Moore. The ongoing farce started as a lawsuit co-sponsored by Americans United that resulted in the tablets’ removal and Judge Roy Moore’s stepping down from the bench. AU was also intimately involved in the Dover, Pennsylvania, case over the teaching of intelligent design in public schools. AU and the ACLU filed suit to prevent the controversial anti-Darwin theory from being taught in class. It also filed an amicus brief in atheist-activist Michael Newdow’s bid to have the words “under God” removed from the Pledge of Allegiance.
As the organization put it in a March 2005 fundraising letter: “AU’s team of church-state lawyers-the best in the nation-stand ready to spring into action whenever and wherever problems arise, using pre-litigation advocacy to curtail violations whenever possible, and going to court when necessary.”
Why? Because the threat posed by Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and the rest is simply too awful to contemplate: “Their agenda is frightening: It bashes public education. It attacks gay people. It is anti-anyone who isn’t ‘born again.’ It is anti-women and anti-freedom.”
While groups like People for the American Way and the American Civil Liberties Union usually headline these news events, Americans United is almost always by their side, like a trusty old character actor once again doing his bit in a key supporting role. ACLU president Nadine Strossen told Doublethink that AU was “essential” to their church-state litigation.
To some degree, the other groups even appear to take their cues from AU. Strossen said she “completely depends” on AU’s monthly newsletter to keep track of developments on the church-state front. Lynn, a former ACLU lawyer himself, is on the group’s national board.
AU’s aggressiveness reflects Lynn’s own style. Friend and foe alike describe him as extraordinarily passionate. Several of his critics tell Doublethink that he’s one of the sharpest debaters they’ve ever sparred with.
“He is the best guy out there defending his point of view,” according to William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.
What makes Lynn’s activism unusual, or at the very least eyebrow-raising, is that in addition to being an activist for church-state separation, he is also an ordained minister. Yes, this man who has for years been relentlessly trying to push God out of the public square is himself a reverend. Lynn does not have a congregation or do regular ministerial work. He is still ordained, however, and can perform weddings and such. Which he still does, he told me, “when I’m asked.”
“He’s such a wonderful advocate because those on the other side portray us as these anti-Christian demons and yet here we have Barry, who’s an ordained minister,” Strossen says. “He has this added credential and knowledge of being a Protestant minister and the ability to quote scripture. I certainly don’t have those credentials or knowledge. He uses it and uses it so effectively.”
Lynn personally sees nothing unusual or contradictory in his dual roles. Moreover, fighting to keep religion out of the public square is, he says, exactly what the Founders would have wanted him to do.
“They thought that in a new country with a new national government that it would be wise, it would be a better policy, to keep a distance between the church and the state,” he says. “In other words, the church wouldn’t become dependent on the largess of government. On the other hand, the government wouldn’t have to make theological decisions. That would be up to the church. That’s why Jefferson would veto these days of Thanksgiving proclamations and stuff like that. He didn’t think it was the role of the federal government to decide what day people should worship.”
Only total separation between the two can ensure a government purified of any contaminating religious involvement. And vice versa. But the burden is on the state to maintain its distance. This requires a scrupulousness measurable by whether anyone simply objects to even the slightest whiff of state involvement in religious activity.
“In my view, the state must bend over backward to make sure that no American is made to feel like a second-class citizen because of what he or she believes or does not believe about God,” Lynn wrote on the American Prospect‘s website.
But it isn’t just Christian symbolism, like nativity scenes at city hall, that the AU president opposes. He’s opposed to religious groups sponsoring Head Start programs, religion-based prison programs, and the federal government reimbursing religious charities that helped with the Hurricane Katrina response. He’s unmoved by the argument that these programs could do some good. So what? Good works can also be done without entangling the state.
His list of objections goes on. And on. (See sidebar for more complete list of AU activities under Lynn.) Lynn’s not big on the military providing chaplains to soldiers, though AU hasn’t made an issue of this. He doesn’t understand why soldiers can’t just go off base to worship. Nor does he like the fact that churches have tax-exempt status. He’d like to see them pay some taxes, though he acknowledges that that position is too radical even for Americans United.
“Others in the group disagree with me,” Lynn says, estimating the breakdown among AU members at 50/50 on the issue. AU is not shy about reporting churches that may have violated their tax-exempt status, though.
Donohue recalls once asking Lynn during a debate whether he approved of having “In God We Trust” on coins.
“He was very smart about it. He said, ‘It’s not an issue for us now.’ I said, ‘Oh, but it will be Barry,’” Donohue recalls with a chuckle.
Lynn’s liberalism isn’t just about social or religious issues. It rejects libertarian, free-market views as well. Without Doublethink raising the subject, he calls Ayn Rand’s writing “junk” and expresses scorn for-as he terms it-”profound individualism” because it has “no moral content.”
“Every man to himself? Where’s the community interest? Where’s the sense of responsibility for your neighbor?” he asks. “The idea just seems wrong.”
Needless to say, his opponents take a distinctly different view of his crusade. Robert Knight, director of the Culture & Family Institute, an affiliate of Concerned Women for America, says Lynn wants to make “pornography public and religion private, so that the pornographers get to set the moral tone for the entire community.”
“Only he knows in his heart what demons are driving him to do this,” Knight says, adding later that he means “demons” only in the metaphorical sense.
As Lynn tells it, he just sort of wandered into the church-state separation business.
He was born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to parents he describes as conservative, church-going Republican types. At some point, however, their Evangelical church was absorbed into the United Church of Christ, perhaps the most liberal of the mainline Protestant denominations. Lynn was swept up in its reformist zeal.
“I never became a socialist, although a lot of people would argue with that,” Lynn said. “But the truth is I did become a liberal.”
He recalled with great admiration his church’s efforts to help women get abortions through a “kind of underground railroad of service providers” as well as its opposition to the Vietnam war. He was also profoundly affected, he says, by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights crusade.
“I was there. I marched with him and I thought, This is the moral linchpin of changing America: the church. That’s what moved me away from my earlier assumptions that I would go to law school and towards the ministry.”
He briefly had a small parish in New Hampshire, but he changed gears in 1973 after interning in the chaplaincy program at Massachusetts General Hospital. An elderly woman refused to leave the hospital despite having recovered. Lynn, dispatched to talk to her, discovered why she refused: Her apartment complex did not have an elevator and she didn’t think she was strong enough anymore to carry her groceries upstairs.
“Nobody had bothered to find out that the real reason [she refused to leave] was that she didn’t think that you could get a cab driver to carry a bag of groceries up three flights of stairs,” Lynn recalls.
Right then, he says, he realized that many people needed someone to fight on their behalf. Lynn decided to become that person.
“The lesson I learned there is in a sense what I do today,” he says. “I think it is important that people understand what their rights are and have a person or institution-if they cannot vindicate those rights themselves-to vindicate those rights for them. That’s why organizations like [AU] are important. Someone can say ‘If I cannot challenge creationism in a science class or I want to challenge this prison program they want me to sign up for,’ they have that help on the outside. That’s what institutions like this do.”
Lynn began studying law at nights, eventually graduating from Georgetown Law Center. Initially he represented the United Church of Christ in Washington, helping draft-dodgers receive amnesty. At some point shortly afterwards-”I’m really terrible with dates,” he says-he became a staff lawyer for the ACLU.
“The transition from the United Church of Christ office to the ACLU seemed like a natural thing.” Initially, Lynn’s ACLU work did not involve cases relating to religion, but over time, those assignments increasingly came his way. As an ordained minister, he simply had a better handle on the issues involved than other staffers. Lynn literally co-wrote the ACLU handbook on dealing with church-state issues.
His first big public splash came in 1986 when the Meese commission released its report on pornography. The study had found a “causal relationship” connecting material that was both sexually explicit and violent with incidents of sexually violent crime. The report called for more aggressive enforcement of anti-pornography laws.
Lynn led the ACLU’s charge to, in his words, “undermine” the commission and its recommendations. He rather immodestly noted that it has been called “the best-orchestrated publicity campaign in modern ACLU history.”
Shortly afterwards, Focus on the Family’s James Dobson spotted him in a restaurant. Dobson, a member of the commission, told Lynn that he had “single-handedly destroyed all the good work” that the commission had tried to do.
“What could I say? I said thank you,” Lynn recalls.
A few years later, Lynn left the ACLU for personal reasons: His son had become seriously ill. Lynn decided he needed less pressure and accepted a teaching position in New Hampshire. It didn’t last. He missed being in the thick of the debate, and his son’s cancer went into remission. When Lynn was offered the position of executive director of AU, he immediately said yes.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State was founded in 1947 by civil libertarians concerned over state funding of religious schools. It was in poor shape when Lynn took over.
“I think the organization did hit a bit of slump in the 1980s,” said Rob Boston, AU’s longtime director of communications.
Lynn, now free to focus exclusively on church-state issues, quickly turned the organization around. Using his contacts through the ACLU, he expanded fundraising, increasing the staff from 10 to 35 today. AU also has 37 state chapters.
Organized as a 501(c)3 nonprofit, AU operates on a $4.2 million annual budget, according to its most recent IRS filings. The money, according to Boston, comes primarily in individual donations from “liberal-to-moderate Protestants, secularists, and Jews.”
Running it doesn’t pay too poorly. The IRS filings put Lynn’s annual salary at $170,701.
As a nonprofit, AU is officially nonpartisan, but it regularly teams up with the country’s leading liberal groups. AU’s narrow agenda and Lynn’s presence helped it carve out a special niche.
“Donors don’t want to give to two or three organizations if those groups are going to be doing exactly the same thing, so you have to find niches in which you function in a way in which other groups do not,” Lynn explained.
In addition to its legal activity, AU acts as a kind of clearinghouse for information on all things church-state related. It maintains an active website, publishes a monthly newsletter, and issues regular press releases.
All have a relentless, if not obsessive, focus on countering anything the religious right supports, says, or does. Words like “theocracy” aren’t hard to find. A profile in AU’s newsletter of Bush’s nominee for the Supreme Court, John Roberts, called him “alarming,” “disturbing,” “troubling,” and “a loyal foot soldier in the far-right ranks.” Roberts, of course, was approved by a 78-22 vote in the Senate.
AU regularly spanks the Christian right on the obvious (and appropriate) things such as Pat Robertson’s August call for Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez to be assassinated by U.S. Special Forces. Other times, it simply talks smack, chiding its opponents over things like poll numbers:
“Dobson and [Family Research Council President Tony] Perkins remain unfazed, which should not be surprising. They are convinced that, regardless of polling, they are on a mission to save the nation. The simple truth, however, is that the nation needs to be saved from the likes of Dobson and Perkins. They are today’s nasty religious politicos driven to push their rigid belief system on as many Americans as possible,” read an April AU blog entry.
Lynn himself travels frequently, giving speeches and lectures. He has testified before Congress numerous times. He’s a standby commentator for many news outlets as both a legal expert and talking head. In the month prior to his Doublethink interview, he appeared on a dozen national TV news programs. That’s not counting print, radio, or online interviews. Lynn has even co-hosted Crossfire-type radio programs with Pat Buchanan and Oliver North.
In short, Lynn and Co. are constantly busy. During the Harriet Miers nomination, however, AU kept its powder dry. AU ultimately never took an official position on her.
It’s a curious decision too, since Bush, it was revealed, vetted Miers with Christian Evangelical leaders- usually the type of church-state intermingling that prompts outraged opposition from AU. The administration even went so far as to tout Miers’s Evangelical faith and church membership.
Then again, maybe the silence wasn’t so curious. Bush’s choice quickly became a political disaster as conservative groups revolted against Miers. During this fracas, several Democrat and liberal groups stayed silent. Off the record, many activists and Democratic staffers conceded they were enjoying the spectacle of the other side’s infighting. So why interrupt?
Was AU joining in that strategy? No, says Boston. It was silent because Miers lacked any significant record on church-state issues. The day Miers bowed out, however, AU finally weighed in with a press release from Lynn offering this backhanded defense: “She seems to have been forced out because she was insufficiently far right on abortion, gay rights and church-state separation. This is appalling.”
[Drop Cap]To Lynn’s critics, he’s the fanatic, not them. “His idea of preserving diversity is to wipe the public square clean of even a hint of Christianity, as if people with religious views somehow have fewer rights than others to speak in public,” says Knight.
The Catholic League’s Donohue agrees. “Lynn’s an extremist. Every public expression of religion he wants sanitized. He wants to turn the United States into Castro’s Cuba. In fact, Castro has more respect for the public expression of religion at Christmas than Barry Lynn,” Donohue says. “Barry wouldn’t call himself a censor, but what else would you call it?”
Syndicated columnist Cal Thomas, a former spokesman for the Moral Majority, says Lynn and AU have a kind of symbiotic relationship with the Christian right. One cannot survive without the other.
“It’s about direct mail. It’s about being outraged. It’s about having enemies. It’s about claiming that if the other side gets power they’ll ruin America. The fundraisers drive a lot of this on both the left and the right,” Thomas says. “So you can never succeed at what you’re doing or people will stop sending money, so you have to keep looking for the next outrage. Both sides do this.”
None of these critics challenged either Lynn’s sincerity or his faith. Yet religion, it turns out, is a touchy subject for Reverend Lynn. This reporter asked if, as a minister, he had saved any souls.
“Yes, it is fair to say that I have, but I would not really want to talk about that.” Happy to talk about his work at AU and his own life, Lynn quickly drew a curtain over his ministerial work.
“Unlike Jerry Falwell and the others, I don’t think I’m the only source of wisdom out there,” he added later, “I don’t think it’s my obligation to pop off about my religious views.”
By and large, progressive organizations have stood by Lynn, seeing his efforts as integral to the liberal agenda. Since the 2004 election, though, some on the left appear to be rethinking their alliance with the church-state purists.
Witness the rise of Jim Wallis, author of the God’s Politics, a bestseller, and the hottest figure on the left on religious matters right now. Joining progressive politics to religiosity, argues Wallace, may help the left make inroads into Republican-leaning red states. At the 2005 “Take Back America” conference, a major annual gathering of liberal groups, Wallis was a featured guest and a special book-signing period was set up for him.
AU was also at the conference, with a table to distribute literature, but Lynn himself was not present. An AU staffer says that Lynn requested to speak but was turned down. Asked about this rebuke from the progressive powers that be, Lynn himself says he does not recall the incident.
But there’s no denying that the wind seems to be turning against those who would restrict religious expression from all public forums. Even the ACLU seems worried about the effect that recent church-state cases are having on their political fortunes. For example, while the ACLU opposes having “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance it purposefully avoided the issue for years. Only after atheist activist Michael Newdow forced the matter did it get on board and file an amicus brief.
For this reason, Newdow is not very popular with his own defenders. “When I introduced [Newdow] to the ACLU’s lobbyist on these issues,” Strossen recalls, “she went ballistic. She said, ‘Do you know how much damage you have done to the cause by bringing your case?’” AU’s Boston says taking on the case was a tough call for them, too.
But while other liberals may want to get right with God, Lynn dismisses the notion that using religion can boost the left’s prospects.
“If progressives think that the way you are going to bring justice to America is to bring in more Bible quotes by politicians, I think they are sadly mistaken. We’ve already seen more scripture-quoting on the floor of Congress than at any time that I can remember. That’s fundamentally flawed. In the United States, we don’t hold any one’s sacred scriptures to have a place of special privilege in the public policy debate.”
In his final Doublethink interview, Lynn was asked about an amusing little case in Prince William County, Virginia. According to an October Washington Post story, a high school marching band dropped the song “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” from its playlist after a local resident complained that the song violates church-state separation. The band conductor told the Post he dropped the old Charlie Daniels Band tune because he didn’t want any controversy.
For once Lynn strikes a conciliatory note. AU wouldn’t have objected to the song, he says. “It’s a marching band, so there aren’t any words at all. . . . We could swallow this or ‘When the Saints Go Marching In,’ without creating a constitutional crisis in America.”
Sean Higgins is a reporter for Investor’s Business Daily.