I recently attended a luncheon at which U.S. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) spoke. This reminded me of a time when I was on his Air America radio show before Franken was a senator. We were doing it live in Minneapolis, and Franken said something about my being both a minister and a lawyer. I responded that this “gives me the power to forgive you this afternoon and still go on and file a class-action lawsuit against you tomorrow.” He chuckled and replied, “I guess you never used that line before.” Naturally, since he was a comedian at the time, I retorted, “Nope, just came to me last night in a dream.”
These two titles have been a strong part of my life and have made me comfortable for the past quarter-century working at Americans United. A recent trip to Chicago and then to Salt Lake City exemplified these two aspects of my identity.
In Chicago, I received an honorary degree from the Chicago Theological Seminary during the institution’s graduation ceremonies. The school’s Acting President, Don C. Clark, is a very thoughtful counsel to the United Church of Christ (UCC) denomination and has taken over the helm of a seminary many aspiring UCC ministers attend.
The speaker was Reza Aslan, who hosts a show on “unconventional” religious movements Sunday nights on CNN. We had a chance to chat in a car from our hotel to the UCC Church where the event took place. Aslan struck me as very conversant with the varieties of religious experience and Bible scholarship. (I also asked him for some advice about having twins, since he and his wife have a pair and my daughter is expecting twins this August.)
Aslan gave a thought-provoking address about the Book of James, which contains the phrase “Faith without works is dead.” This, of course, is in direct conflict with other Gospel representations that good works are meaningless and that it is only through the acceptance of Jesus as savior that people get through the Pearly Gates. (Political conservatives are not generally fans of James.)
The next day, President Donald J. Trump gave the graduation address at Liberty University, and MSNBC’s “A.M. Joy” show put together a panel to discuss his remarks and why evangelicals like Trump so much. I noted that, among other things, the Religious Right is happy because Trump has vowed to appoint only ultra-conservative justices to the Supreme Court. They’ve forgiven his sexism, authoritarianism, anti-Muslim views and apparent affection for Russia.
Later that afternoon, I flew to Salt Lake City. Although I did visit some Americans United supporters, I was there chiefly to attend a judicial conference sponsored by the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. I had been invited to participate in a panel on law and religion with Luke Goodrich of the Becket Fund, to be moderated by the legendary former New York Times Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse (whose writing won her a Pulitzer Prize and led to her being referenced as “The Greenhouse Effect.”)
The three of us figured out the details of the event over the past few months and created three difficult hypotheticals. My contribution was a look at traditional Jewish “get” laws. In some branches of Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, a divorce does not become final until the husband agrees to it. Once a get has been issued, the woman is free to remarry and raise future children in the Jewish faith. Some angry husbands refuse to issue gets even after civil authorities have recognized the divorce. We debated whether units of government can compel that a get be issued.
Another hypothetical focused on Christian physicians who refuse to follow a law requiring them to discuss (or at least refer) patients in states with physician-aid-in-dying statutes about the availability of that option. Finally, we looked at the extent to which employment contracts are enforceable in Catholic schools even if they require compliance with church teachings, such as banning the use of in vitro fertilization.
We enjoyed a thoroughly civil discussion before a receptive audience – and it lasted long enough that no one would mistake it for an allegedly “in-depth” discussion on the Fox News Channel. (Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was in attendance for most of the session.)
As many of you know, I plan to retire at the end of the year. This trip may have been one of my last opportunities to bring together both sides of me – lawyer and minister – to promote the important work of Americans United.
Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.