Editor’s Note: Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn has just published a new book titled God And Government: Twenty-Five Years of Fighting for Equality, Secularism and Freedom of Conscience (Prometheus Books). The book recounts many of the church-state battles Lynn and Americans United have fought over the past quarter century.
This excerpt is from a speech Lynn delivered to the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas in 2002.
What I’d like to do this evening is something I rarely do: give a presentation called “The Top 10 Reasons You Should Not Trust the Religious Right.” Actually, this address is so inflammatory that I am only allowed to give it at ACLU dinners, library conventions and meetings of the Religious Right – in the latter case, because they don’t understand it!
Why distrust? First, the Religious Right sees things that aren’t there! In the movie “The Sixth Sense,” the little boy saw dead people and they WERE really there. The Religious Right sees things that aren’t really there.
Let me explain. You probably know that the Right is obsessed with images. They are offended by all kinds of things. They don’t like rap music; they don’t like Playboy or Cosmopolitan covers to be visible in stores, so they keep demanding that brown wrappers be put over them; they don’t like anything connected to Hollywood. But they also have found reasons to demand the censorship or destruction of things that many of us don’t see as remotely controversial.
Pastor Jack Brock of the Christ Community Church in Alamogordo, N.M., sponsored a book burning to celebrate the New Year. At this event at least 30 Harry Potter books were tossed into a bonfire. Although Brock admitted that he had not read any of the J. K. Rowling fantasy novels about a young wizard, he nevertheless formally declared to CNN that “Harry Potter is the devil” who “is destroying people” and that the books are “a masterpiece of satanic deception…that encourage our youth to learn more about witches, warlocks, and sorcerers, and those things [that] are an abomination to God.”
Regrettably, too many of these literal book burners are not satisfied with persuading people to do things; they seek to invoke the power of the state to stop everyone from exercising their own judgment.
Reason number two is that these folks do not always understand irony and have a startling lack of any sense of humor. We took out an ad in the Colorado Springs Gazette a few years back that read, in block letters, “MAYBE WE SHOULD LET RADICAL RELIGIOUS FUNDAMENTALISTS RUN AMERICA (AFTER ALL IT HAS WORKED SO WELL IN IRAN).” It then had a special 800 number we sometimes used. Man, did we get some interesting messages the next day, most of them unrepeatable. My personal favorite was from a guy who said, “I’m just going to waste your money because I know you’re paying for this. So I’ll just keep on costing you money by staying on the line.”
Then he began to whistle. He also put the receiver up to a radio playing really bad country music and then up to a TV blaring a soap opera. Now, we have a cutoff after five minutes, but because he was having too much fun to hear it click off, I visualize that to this very moment there is a guy in Colorado still waltzing around his house holding his telephone up to household appliances, still thinking he’s on our dime.
Reason number three: They are careless. There is a minister in Buena Vista, Calif., named Wiley Drake. For several years, he has been praying “imprecatory” prayers – basically prayers for my death. He decided to get a former member of Congress, U.S. Rep. Jay Dickey of Arkansas, to hold a “pastors’ summit” in the Capitol, basically to pray for the election of Republicans.
Somehow, Pastor Drake must have gotten his list of friends and enemies mixed up, and I ended up getting invited to attend the pastors’ summit. When I walked into that room and went up to Drake to say hello, he nearly turned to stone, as if the largest skunk in this universe had just arrived at his family reunion picnic.
See, that was just pure sloppiness. I wasn’t supposed to be there. Rep. Dickey was a big hit, though, with these pastors, particularly when he explained that Satan was often on the floor of the House of Representatives causing members to cast bad votes.
Reason number four: They are a tad hypocritical, and that makes them untrustworthy. The members of Congress supported by the Religious Right often tout their perfect scorecards on “family issues” prepared by groups like the Christian Coalition and the Traditional Values Coalition but sometimes have trouble explaining their own life choices.
For example, in a five-year period, ending in 2002, Congress has spent almost $400 million on programs whose “exclusive purpose” is the promotion of abstinence and, in the words of the federal law, teach that monogamy in the context of marriage is the “expected standard of human sexuality.”
Who supported the standard? Yes, Newt “I used to be important” Gingrich, who was, of course, having an affair with a staff member during the entire period he was chastising the president for his sexual indecencies.
Reason number five: When the Religious Right doesn’t get what it wants through the normal processes of constitutional democracy, they often try to get it through tactics of pressure, lawlessness, and intimidation.
I have been having a running feud with a minister (I know it sounds like ministers don’t like me) in Texas named Robert Jeffress because of his manner of dealing with books he doesn’t like. He goes to the local library, checks out books he finds offensive and never returns them. The pastor then goes to the city council to demand that the library not be permitted to repurchase the “lost” item.
Reason number six: Their prognostications are often wrong. When the city of Orlando, Fla., allowed rainbow flags to be flown from city light poles and when Disney World had a “Gay Day,” Pat Robertson went ballistic. He said on his TV show, “The 700 Club,” that Orlando could be hit by tornadoes, earthquakes, terrorist attacks, and “possibly a meteor.”
We at Americans United were afraid that this prediction hadn’t gotten its proper recognition, so we reported it in a press release titled, “Duck, Donald.” When all was said and done, Orlando didn’t have any of these problems and was actually spared from disastrous forest fires that occurred in much of the rest of the state.
Reason number seven: They always have simple answers for almost every problem, but they are simply wrong. Following the Columbine school shooting tragedy, Congress managed to avoid passing any legislation about guns or funding programs for troubled youth. The House, however, did pass a resolution supporting the posting of the Ten Commandments in all schools and public buildings. I doubt that Moses has been waiting for several millennia for this affirmation of his work. That’s simplistic and useless. If placing holy words next to people turned them from sinners to saints, the mere presence of Gideon bibles in motel nightstands would have terminated adultery by now.
Reason number eight: The Religious Right really doesn’t like most of us.
Take Pat Robertson, for example. Here are a few of his observations about people of different faiths. On Hindus: “What is Hinduism but devil worship, ultimately?” On Muslims: “To see Americans become followers of, quote, Islam, is nothing short of insanity. . . . Why would people in America want to embrace the religion of the slavers?”
What a remarkably short historical memory he has. Did he just forget that there were a lot of Christians piloting those boats from West Africa? He has suggested that the Roman Catholic understanding of Holy Communion is akin to cannibalism. He doesn’t think much of fellow Protestants, noting: “You say, you’re supposed to be nice to the Episcopalians and the Presbyterians and the Methodists and this, that and the other thing. Nonsense! I don’t have to be nice to the spirit of the Antichrist. . . . I don’t have to be nice to them.” Robertson’s book The New World Order uses classic anti-Semitic sources and reeks of anti-Jewish sentiment.
It is not just religious bigotry for which he stands. Robertson’s not very high on women. He noted in one fundraising letter: “The feminist agenda . . . is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft and become lesbians.”
Gay people also aren’t particularly appreciated. At a Christian Coalition convention in Washington, D.C., he was selling a work by George Grant called Legislating Immorality, which called for the execution of all gay people but was kind enough to qualify it in a footnote by saying that in our judicial system we would have to give them a trial first.
Reason number nine: They aren’t clear about their real agenda until they have suckered a lot of folks far down the primrose path. A major focus of their efforts toward restricting reproductive choices right now is on banning third-trimester abortions, or, as they characterize it, killing a fetus in the process of birth. And the procedure they describe is couched in some lurid language that even normally pro-choice folks sometimes decide to draw that line.
Do you think for a moment that this is all the Religious Right wants? Of course not. The official question for candidates on most of those phony voters’ guides they distributed in churches the Sunday before election day was usually phrased, “Do you agree that abortion should be illegal under all circumstances?” Overturning Roe v. Wade is their goal; outlawing all abortions in each state is their next goal. Dr. James Dobson says women who have abortions have committed a “crime against humanity [that] will not go unpunished.”
Reason number ten: Inconsistency. Although they detest government, they want to use government power to promote their religion. The real enemy of the Christian Right is not Americans United or the ACLU; it is themselves. I don’t think the Religious Right understands that religion thrives best where government takes no sides and offers no “help.” There are at least 2,000 different religious groups in the United States and tens of millions of Americans who choose no spiritual path. We all live in relative harmony.
Look at Iran; look at Northern Ireland; look at Afghanistan – state-sponsored religion and the wars against other faiths it engenders should teach us all that we have a pretty good thing going here. In fact, the separation of church and state is probably the single best idea that our two-hundred-year experiment in democracy has engendered.
I don’t want, or need, the help of government to pray the prayers I believe in. Politicians always talk about “non-sectarian prayers.” What do they say: “To a God or gods unknown. Thanks. Amen”? I think most people of faith want to pray in their own manner. I don’t want the government giving out money or vouchers to corrupt the integrity of the ministries of the church I attend or any other faith community. I don’t want to see a day when Methodists, Baptists, Catholics, Scientologists and Christian Scientists battle for the biggest piece of funding for their religious missions.
Money is fungible; if the government buys the soup for the soup kitchen the religious provider can just buy more Bibles. That’s what Robertson thought he would achieve in 2000 – a president to select and an overwhelming Republican Senate to ratify selections to the Supreme Court. The speech given by his spouse, Dede Robertson, to the Christian Coalition convention in September included the stern warning that without a new Supreme Court – and Dave Barry, I am not making this up – we would soon have “SEX IN THE STREETS”! (Talk about traffic tie-ups).
He didn’t quite get what he wanted. If there are Supreme Court appointments to fill a majority of the Senate – Democrats and Pro-First Amendment Republicans – can stop bad appointments.
In 1999 I was having lunch with a congressman from Oklahoma named Ernest Istook. We had just had a debate in Texas about his proposal to bring government-sponsored prayer back to public schools. After finishing the main course, he said, “Barry, the conservative Republican caucus had a meeting the other day and we’ve solved the problem of the Y2K bug.” I can be a straight man, so I said, “Gee, so what did you guys decide?” He answered, “Well, when the computers can’t recognize the year 2000, they flip back to l900, and we like it better that way.” There is a lot of sad truth in that joke.
But, you know, I don’t get the impression that most of you are willing to go gently back into that night when women couldn’t vote and couldn’t make reproductive choices; when those with mental and physical disabilities were shunted aside to basement classrooms as early as elementary school so their disability would be complete; when gays and lesbians were third-class citizens everywhere and when the shame of racism was often celebrated as a virtue.
The bottom line: The Religious Right still wants to run your life from the moment of conception until the moment of “natural death” – as well as pretty much every moment in between. What a nation we’d have then.
Excerpted from Barry W. Lynn, God And Government: Twenty-Five Years of Fighting for Equality, Secularism and Freedom of Conscience (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2015). Copyright © 2015 by Rev. Barry W. Lynn. All rights reserved. Used with permission of the publisher; www.prometheusbooks.com.