Talkin’ ’Bout My Generation

What Young And Old Can Learn From Each Other In The Battle For Freedom

I recently interviewed Merle Hoffman, an early hero of the pre-Roe v. Wade pro-choice movement in New York City, on my radio program, and then went to a book reading she did in Washington a few days later.

During the question period, a young woman named Kate Vlach went to the microphone and gave a very powerful and moving statement about young activists. She noted that 35 percent of the staff of her employer, NARAL Pro-Choice America, is composed of people under 30 and that her entire employment history was devoted to the cause of reproductive justice.

Without it sounding like a personal complaint, she did express a note of frustration: that she and her young colleagues sometimes feel that outside her organization, the “elders” of progressive movements don’t make it clear that they truly appreciate the work this new generation is doing.

Kate was swamped at the end of the evening by people (myself included) who wanted to talk about ways to improve intergenerational communication. This has to be more than we folks with gray hair spinning tales of what great things we did in the 1960s and ’70s; it means listening to younger people so they can tell us which of our tactics they believe might still be valuable and what new strategies they’ve discovered that we can use.

I remember being introduced at a New York fundraiser in about 1978 (at an age possibly younger than Kate), by former Attorney General Ramsey Clark who said, “It looks like Barry has signed on for the long haul to justice.” I was incredibly honored by those words, which have come back to me at times when I have been tempted to take a job outside the “justice arena.”

I also remember mentors from my earliest days at Americans United, people who helped me learn the history and culture of our organization and encouraged me to make my own mark in this field.

Alas, some of those mentors are no longer with us. I recently got a sad phone call informing me of the death of Jeanne Pugh, a stalwart for our cause. Jeanne had been the religion editor of the St. Petersburg Times. As a reporter, she was always objective and sought balance in every story. In retirement, she “came out” as a strong supporter of church-state separation and helped organize AU chapters in Florida. Jeanne was a devout Christian and a world-class supporter of religious freedom and the rights of women. She would have liked Kate’s pizzazz.

I thought of these two women, five decades removed from one another, when I was a participant in “Indiana Civic Day” at the statehouse in Indianapolis. One of the other speakers was the beleaguered head of Planned Parenthood of Indiana and her theme was the “power of civic engagement.”

Earlier in the morning, I had said that the single greatest threat to church-state separation was not the bizarre theories of any presidential aspirant or actions we don’t like from the current administration, but that sometimes we feel like giving up. Apathy today is constitutional homicide. But being engaged and overcoming depression only works when we know we are not alone in the fight: we have to energetically engage persons – religious and secular, male and female, gay and straight, and, oh yes, younger and older.

Besides these ruminations on age, February turned out to be very busy. My Florida travels were to explain the dangers posed by Ballot Initiative 8, a measure that would literally erase the strong church-state separation provisions of the Florida Constitution and extend taxpayer funding to religious entities.

In Broward County, the local ACLU chapter invited me to deliver the keynote address at its annual luncheon. We had a diverse crowd on hand. Some had graying hair, but there were students who had driven an hour and school board members who looked like they had kids of school age. I moved on to Naples for a packed lecture at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples.

Between the Florida mini-tour and the Indiana meeting, I had a week in Washington devoted to trying to help preserve Obama administration regulations that would require big religiously affiliated employers like hospitals and universities to fully cover contraception in their insurance plans. The Catholic bishops and a number of Religious Right groups have characterized this as part of a “war on religion,” essentially arguing that the corporate conscience of a big religious entity automatically trumps the conscience of individual women employees. (Do corporations even have a “conscience”?)

I appeared on National Public Radio’s “Diane Rehm Show” debating a lawyer for the bishops and was invited to a briefing for members of the U.S. House of Representatives on how best to present the message that religious freedom doesn’t give churches the right to run other people’s private lives. I noticed that the members generally had gray or white hair, but their staffs who put the whole thing together were populated by those active Millennials.

It’s a partnership that’s guaranteed to work for us.

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