I love the internet – usually. 

Let’s concede that it has some drawbacks, especially e-mail. Spam messages offering questionable financial deals and medical remedies of dubious worth are bad enough, but here’s what’s worse: Every cranky person can now contact you immediately and, in no uncertain terms, tell you what they think about something you said or did.

They might see a news item in their local newspaper and want to reply. They might see you on a television show and feel an immediate need to respond to your remarks or even let you know what they think of your appearance. Of course, they might have just read something on the Internet, and since they are located at the computer anyway, the feedback is even quicker – and with even less of an incentive to spell properly.

One of AU’s new staff members, Ilana Stern, counts among her duties monitoring the messages that come in through Americans United’s general e-mail address. Ilana was, I think, a bit shocked to read the hyperbolic vitriol she encountered in just the first few days she was here, including claims that her boss (that would be me) is really a Nazi.

Some critics also think I’m in league with the devil. One writer, highly distressed at AU’s campaign to persuade pastors to obey federal tax law and refrain from endorsing or opposing candidates with church resources, wrote: “I suppose you are also one of the main reasons that the Ten Commandments were taken out of schools. You are one of the reasons that kids are killing kids in schools…. Demon.”

Linking me to Nazis and Satan isn’t enough for some people. They feel compelled to also drag in the Ku Klux Klan. Columnist Joseph Farah of WorldNetDaily was infuriated that Americans United has filed litigation to block a new South Carolina “I Believe” license plate bearing a cross and a stained-glass window. In his attack on us, Farah managed to work in the KKK.

Farah’s “reasoning” went something like this: Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black wrote the l962 decision striking down government-sponsored prayer in New York public schools. Black was, briefly, a member of the Klan in the 1920s because that was how one got political power in Alabama, and Black wanted to run for Senate. Black later renounced the Klan and wrote or signed on to opinions that infuriated the hate group, such as 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education declaring public segregation unconstitutional. (The Klan burned him in effigy for that one.)

So what does this have to do with Americans United? Beats me. Lacking the ability to frame a real argument, Farah relies on cheap smears. If you took away name-calling and guilt by association, I’m not sure guys like Farah would even be able to write their columns.

Farah was far from the only one worked up over the South Carolina case. Intemperate hate mail flooded into our office, much of it ungrammatical and sprinkled with “creative” spelling.

Some of the messages were so over the top they were amusing, so Ilana wrote about them for AU’s blog. But things quickly got out of hand there as well, and some of the comments were so vile we had to remove them.

I understand that there are people out there who strongly disagree with the stands Americans United takes. Fine. They have the right to voice their opinions, and if they are polite, I often don’t mind engaging them in debate. But it’s way past time for many of our critics to lay off the Nazi and KKK comparisons. They also need to dump the 9/11 references as well because no one can top Ann Coulter saying that it wasn’t just the feminists and ACLU that caused the attacks, it was also Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and yours truly. (Yes, she really did say that.)

We can disagree but be polite about it. Every month I do an hour of radio on “Janet Parshall’s America,” where I debate some culture war topics with Janet and her husband Craig, who is general counsel for the National Religious Broadcasters Association. We disagree strongly on many issues, but there’s no vitriol. It is always fun, and most of the callers have no problem maintaining a sense of decorum in critiquing my views – occasionally some even agree.

On my daily radio show “CultureShocks,” I have people on from time to time with whom I disagree (like conservatives David Horowitz, John Fund and Michael Medved). But we don’t finish the show with bleeding tonsils or ready to take a baseball bat to the other person’s car windshield.

It is not my age – I’ll be 60 by the time you read this – that leads me to urge a reduction in our response to righteous anger. It’s the simple fact that we’re just not learning much from each other when the level of discourse hits the sub-basement.

And that is a shame. After all, I do sometimes learn things from my thoughtful critics. But there’s only one thing I want to learn from the name-callers and spewers of toxic bile: When do they plan to go away?

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.