State of the Nation
The battle for church–state separation may have to be fought all over again.” That’s what Eleanor Roosevelt told Dr. Glenn L. Archer, the first executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU). And that’s what current AU executive director Rev. Barry W. Lynn makes clear in his latest book, God and Government, which spans his 25-year fight to maintain what Thomas Jefferson called the “wall of separation between church and state” and to protect both the freedom of religion and from religion.
Largely through use of his speeches and public writings, Lynn’s book documents and explains the key church-state issues of the past two-and-a-half decades. It provides a rare behind-the-scenes look at the personalities on both sides of the issue—not just the “bold-face names,” including the Revs. Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Jimmy Swaggart, but their anonymous followers who revile Lynn but still want their photos taken with him.
Anyone who has heard Barry Lynn speak, as I have on numerous occasions, knows his self-deprecating, deadpan humor that, combined with the rare ability to make even the most complex constitutional issues accessible to all audiences, makes him a sought-after and riveting public speaker. The book showcases this talent by re-printing some of his speeches, which are connected by updates on the issues and personal observations about the circumstances of the presentations.
Lynn makes it clear at the outset that the book is not meant to be a “comprehensive history of First Amendment matters over the past 25 years.” Grouped by topics, the chapters might include speeches from the Bush era interspersed with articles he penned in more recent years. This eclectic format drives home that the battle to preserve the wall of separation persists.
If any one topic takes center stage, it is the so-called Religious Right, beginning with its inception in the 1970s as the Moral Majority. In Lynn’s description, the Right was “offended by a Supreme Court decision that ruled that private religious schools engaged in any form of racial discrimination could be denied precious tax-exempt status.” After the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, the conservative Protestant movement united with the Catholic establishment in what was to become a long-term battle against women’s reproductive rights in all its manifestations.
In 1988, on the heels of Pat Robertson’s unsuccessful bid for the Republican presidential nomination, the Christian Coalition was born. Lynn traces this history through his experiences and observations as a frequent participant in the Coalition’s Road to Victory confabs, during which Republican presidential candidates (those who pass muster) are invited to speak and try to outdo each other in their devotion to the cause. Lynn quickly eschewed anonymity at these meetings, as well as at the later Values Voters Summits sponsored by the Family Research Council. The reverend’s exchanges with attendees and leaders, as well as his uncanny ability to court the press at these events—to the chagrin of the Religious Right sponsors—come across as entertaining and enlightening. This is no easy feat for an author chronicling an insidious movement to undermine everything from public education to women’s healthcare.
The issues covered in Lynn’s book are interconnected. For instance, the efforts to inject religion into the public schools through prayer and the subversion of the curriculum overlapped with the schemes supported by the “Catholic hierarchy and their friends in the Protestant religion” to get taxpayer dollars for their parochial schools, ministries and churches. Government money flowed, and continues to flow, to religious institutions, thanks to both Democratic and Republican presidents. The account of the White House Faith-based Initiative makes for an especially compelling and disturbing history. Government funding still goes to faith-based institutions with discriminatory hiring practices. Even under President Obama, calls to undo these Bush-era policies have gone unanswered.
In addition to persistent issues like religion in schools, government funding of religion and religiously based attacks on sex education and reproductive health, new controversies have surfaced. The book discusses the role of the Religious Right in the unsuccessful effort to quash marriage equality. In addition, the Supreme Court’s decision in the Hobby Lobby case gave a boost to a rising “corporate theocracy.” God and Government provides a valuable context for today’s battles over religion.
Lynn, both a minister and a lawyer with decades of experience, closes on a note of optimism: “Things change—often quite slowly, but on balance I would submit that there will be more ‘separation of church and state’ in 2035 than there is today.”
God and Government: Twenty-Five Years of Fighting for Equality, Secularism, and Freedom of Conscience
Rev. Barry W. Lynn
(Prometheus Books, 2015, 334 pp)