Editor’s Note: 2022 marks the 75th anniversary of the founding of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. To celebrate this milestone anniversary, Church & State is profiling important figures in the life of the organization throughout the year. This issue, we’re featuring a Q&A with the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, who served as executive director of Americans United from 1992-2017
During Barry W. Lynn’s 25-year tenure, Americans United expanded its legal, legislative and outreach programs. Lynn oversaw the Communications Department’s inclusion of social media and presided over a budget that grew sixfold. He also moved the organization from Silver Spring, Md., a Washington, D.C., suburb, into the heart of the nation’s capital.
Lynn was a common fixture on the Fox News Channel, CNN, MSNBC and other news networks. During this time with AU, he penned two books – Piety & Politics and God & Government. He also traveled around the country speaking to religious and secular organizations.
Lynn took time out from working on his memoirs to speak recently with Church & State Editor Rob Boston.
Boston: You led Americans United for 25 years. Let’s begin with an obvious question: What do you consider to be some of the highlights of your tenure?
Lynn: For me, the principal highlight of my time at Americans United was building a strong team of advocates to take on the increased power of the Religious Right. Although every issue didn’t bring unanimous approval of our ultimate tactics, the discussion was always serious, respectful and focused. We had very little staff turnover because in spite of some differences in approach, I hired extraordinary people who joined the mostly brilliant people I “inherited” from my predecessor’s staff. There were some bumps along the road, but all in all, these were wonderful people to work with. As my original employer in Washington used to put it, “These were people I would be happy to be in jail with.” In fact, jail is where many of our ideological opponents wished we would all end up.
Boston: You’re an attorney, but you’re also an ordained United Church of Christ minister. This seemed to annoy some leaders of the Religious Right. TV preacher Pat Robertson once called you “lower than a child molester,” and the late Rev. Jerry Falwell once said he wouldn’t let you preach even around the corner from his church. I recall other Religious Right leaders calling you a “fake” minister. Why do you think your ordination spurred so much hostility?
Lynn: I believe my ordination in the United Church of Christ drew so much criticism because I was always clear about how vitally important faith was for me. When I would speak to atheist or humanist groups the person introducing me often said, “Barry is the one theist I would not want to convert to atheism.” When I did the closing plenary address at a University of Chicago Divinity School anniversary, an atheist came up to me after the speech and said he had heard me speak at an atheist event and wanted to see if I took the same hard line for separation at a theistic event that I had when he had seen me earlier. He proclaimed that the message was the same. I only told him that I hoped I had updated the humorous anecdotes.
Boston: I’ll never forget the time you were testifying in Congress, and U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) badgered you about your views on the existence of hell. But I know you had plenty of positive interactions with legislators. Can you recall some of our champions?
Lynn: There were great champions for separation of church and state that I worked with both at Americans United and earlier at the American Civil Liberties Union. Both U.S. Reps. Don Edwards of California and Pat Williams of Montana tried assiduously to make preschool available in public schools and restrict its support in religiously based child-care centers. Sadly, a split in the progressive community defeated this proposal, and as a result we still have a dearth of available and affordable quality day care to this day.
Republican Sen. Lowell Weicker of Connecticut understood filibuster rules and was always willing to use them, or threaten to use them, when violations of the First Amendment were being proposed. He lost his seat to Joe Lieberman who falsely claimed that Weicker was anti-religious because of his opposition to amending the Constitution to allow government- sponsored prayer in schools. When Lieberman ran as the vice presidential candidate with Al Gore, he infamously said that people who were religious were “more moral” than those who were not.
There were people I had the chance to work with after I got to Americans United who were staunch defenders of separation. These included U.S. Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York, who served as chair of the House Judiciary Committee, and Virginia’s Bobby Scott, who was the principal opponent of the “faith-based” initiative begun under President George W. Bush. This regressive conduit of federal funds to religious groups unfortunately survived the two terms of Barack Obama, expanded under Donald Trump and remains on the books in the Biden Administration. Among its many flaws, it allows recipients of federal funds to discriminate in the employment to persons to work for those entities. Bobby Scott often noted, “You are either in favor of discrimination or you are against it.” This mess has supported discrimination from its inception through today.
Boston: You never hesitated to charge into the lion’s den. You appeared on the Fox News Channel more times than I can count, and you were often a guest on right-wing talk radio. Some of our members loved to see you stand up to far-right hosts, while others felt it was a waste of time. Can you elaborate on your philosophy of engaging the other side?
Lynn: During my first year at Americans United, I was offered the opportunity to do what became a nearly daily three-hour debate for Mutual Broadcasting with Pat Buchanan. It aired live on nearly 100 radio stations and literally turned me into a national pundit on the First Amendment and virtually everything else. I turned my earnings from this program over to Americans United, and since my family was living in New Hampshire at the time, I had plenty of time to keep doing AU business late into the evening and travel to affiliates many weekends.
Buchanan was a principled person, although virtually all his principles were wrong-headed. Debating a well- versed and articulate opponent gave me a lot of practice at combating right-wing views by those not as smart or skillful as Pat, like Tucker Carlson and Bill O’Reilly. If you can’t confront the illogic and lies of the Right, you should probably be in another line of work.
Similarly, people sometimes wondered why I invited right-wingers to have debates at AU conferences, or why I went on television to discuss ridiculous ideas like the phony “war on Christmas.” If you do not confront deceitful notions and they go unchallenged, they hold on as truths. This cannot stand.
Boston: Let’s look at some specific issues. During your time with AU, the organization reported dozens of houses of worship and religious ministries for engaging in partisan politicking. Some religious leaders countered that this was free speech. I know you’re a free-speech advocate, so why doesn’t this argument wash?
Lynn: I remain a confirmed free-speech advocate but believe that there are times when unfettered “speech” rights are not legitimate claims. In order to obtain the incredibly lucrative benefit of a federal tax exemption – and in the case of religious institutions, the additional benefit of not having to report income or expenditures – it is legitimate for there to be some conditions attached. The IRS insists on only two things: no partisan politicking (although a religious body can speak on moral issues) and no self-inurement (you can’t exist primarily for the financial benefit of the worship leader or her or his family).
During a debate with conservative activist Craig Parshall on his wife’s syndicated radio show, we discussed whether Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa should have asked leaders of a number of “mega ministries” to testify about their expenditures, Craig took the view that he should not. I said it was perfectly reasonable. In a moment of rare inversion of caller sentiment, I recall that every single caller agreed with me.
Boston: Abortion is a huge issue right now in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling overturning Roe v. Wade. Americans United fought efforts to block access to birth control in the 1950s and supported Roe when it came down in 1973. In your view, why is abortion a church-state issue?
Lynn: Abortion was the single issue that got me most engaged with separation of church and state. A friend in college told me he was going to London for his spring break and when I said that “sounds like fun,” he replied, “It isn’t. My girlfriend and I are going to get an abortion.” He explained that it was impossible to obtain one legally even in otherwise progressive states like Massachusetts and New York because of the obstacles placed by the political clout of the Roman Catholic clergy on obtaining safe and legal abortions.
I only wish that Roe had been decided on church-state grounds because the diversity of theological beliefs about when “personhood” begins should preclude governments from weighing in on any particular viewpoint. My father was a nearly lifelong Republican but left when they started adopting an anti-abortion viewpoint. He thought this was purely a personal moral decision about which politicians should not express an opinion by enacting legislation on the matter.
Boston: Let’s look at LGBTQ rights. Americans United got heavily involved in this issue during your leadership. In your view, how do LGBTQ rights and church-state separation interact?
Lynn: Personal choice and autonomy are central to my vision of a just order. I find it very strange that although Jesus never made any derogatory remarks about gay people, right-wing Christians have demonized them for decades. They do cite passages in the Christian Old Testament about men not “lying with men” but then ignore all kinds of other passages that call for the death penalty for recalcitrant children and wearing clothing of mixed fabric.
There is, of course, a strain of Christian conservatives (Reconstructionists) who unabashedly seek to turn all the prohibitions in Scripture into legislation. In general, such views are rejected by the “mainstream” of Christian zealots who select out the groups they will hate and the alleged prohibitions they would enforce through law.
There is little doubt that Jesus proclaimed a message of “love” and not the “hate” espoused by many on the Religious Right. In one debate with a particularly vile Christian apologist before about 500 of his followers, I remarked in my summation that his claim that he “hated the sin but loved the sinner” seemed utterly unbelievable and that he evinced not an ounce of respect for anyone in the LGBTQ+ community.
In my experience of this community, its members simply want to be left alone by bigots, religious or otherwise. It is an appalling lie that they intend or even believe it is possible to “convert” people to the “homosexual lifestyle.”
Boston: We’re seeing a lot of instances of censorship in public schools and libraries these days, and most of the material targeted deals with human sexuality, race relations or the “occult.”Again, historically AU has opposed religiously based censorship. Why do you think this issue has suddenly become so prominent?
Lynn: Nearly everyone in the country seems to dislike something and would be happy to see governments ban it. Although some of the censorship efforts I encountered when I started at Americans United seem comical today – that Shakespeare’s “Othello” encouraged interracial dating or that a teal puppet named Pumsy used in reading classes was encouraging children to embrace Hinduism – today’s claims are more ominous.
The governor of Virginia was elected primarily because he promised to rid the commonwealth of teaching “critical race theory” in public schools. The fact that this legal theory was not being taught anywhere in the state didn’t stop him from bloviating on the matter and making it a cornerstone of his campaign. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis wants to prohibit schools from acknowledging that trans persons even exist. I was always happy to work with teachers and librarians around the country who wanted to stop political activity suggesting that simple exposure to an idea in a classroom or library had some overarching power to convince children that the idea should immediately subvert any alternatives presented by parents or religious institutions.
Boston: The role of religion in public schools has always been contentious. You’re a minister and a parent whose children attended public schools. Let’s pretend for a moment that you’re talking to a group of Christian nationalists. What would you say to them to help them understand the proper role of religion in education?
Lynn: I would tell Christian parents that it is their right and responsibility to teach children about what their faith should be, but that the public school cannot be expected to and should be prohibited from preaching anything about religion to their children. I was proud to see Americans United representing a Washington school system that simply tried to stop a football coach from proselytizing his players by public prayer on the football field. I was similarly proud during my tenure to protest the actions of a teacher in California to ridicule a student who expressed his belief in the literal truth of the story of Noah taking a group of animals on his ark to escape a flood.
American schools may not be perfect, but they have done an admirable job of teaching generations of young people not just the basics of reading, writing and mathematics, but also how to “critically evaluate” information about economics, politics and history. During a debate with Phyllis Schlafly before the American Association of School Administrators, she objected to the very idea of “critical thinking,” which I noted would consign young people to a bleak world where nothing could be challenged and no real options explored.
Boston: I often hear from AU members who are bothered by the government’s use of religious language in a symbolic manner, such as stamping “In God We Trust” on money and slipping “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance. As a person of faith, how do you feel about these things?
Lynn: I believe that efforts to remove “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance were admirable because it is a national declaration which young people are expected to recite that is demonstrably a law “respecting an establishment of religion,” passed in the 1950s as a addendum to an otherwise secular statement created by a Baptist minister who specifically wanted to leave religion out of it.
“In God We Trust” on our money is both a lie (we don’t turn to God to defend the nation and spend billions on military hardware) and an insult to any god out there because people use those dollars and coins to pay for all kinds of terrible things from giving bribes to buying sex from trafficked young people. Discussing it is important because many Americans don’t know that this phrase did not appear on U.S. currency until it cropped up on some currency during the Civil War. On currency, though, I don’t think this is an issue to prioritize in the midst of all the other horrific assaults on separation of church and state we are seeing.
Boston: What do you make of the demographic changes that are under way in America? People seem to be drifting away from organized religion, even as they continue to show an interest in spirituality. How might this trend affect church-state relations?
Lynn: If my only exposure to religion were to the ramblings of the Pat Robertson network or the pontifications of right-wing politicians who after every mass shooting call only for “thoughts and prayers,” I would probably have rejected it myself. When I listen to the Rev. William Barber call for an end to wealth disparity or go to a church service as I did on Juneteenth and hear a sermon about race in America, I feel good about the positive contributions organized religion can have. Similarly, I know plenty of people who define themselves as “spiritual” persons who see some purpose in the universe that is not explainable to them by reason alone. Even though the shift away from organized religion is clear, it is not likely alone to protect the separation of church and state. That requires that politicians not be allowed to continue to pander to the Religious Right and that on the ground organizing by progressives be improved in state and national elections.
Boston: What have you been up to in retirement? I hear you’re working on a memoir. What can you tell us about that?
Lynn: One night at a party at our home in Maryland, a young man came up to me and said, “Mr. Lynn, when I get out of school, I want to do what you do.” When I asked, “What do you think I do?” he responded, “I think you get paid to piss people off.” I replied, “Sometimes you need to irritate people in order to start social change.” That has become the title of my memoir, something I would never have completed but for the ravages of COVID-19.
I am talking with a few publishers but may just self-publish it because it conveniently fits into three phases, and maybe three shorter volumes: peace (efforts to deal with the results of the war in Vietnam), porn (my anti-censorship efforts at the ACLU) and prayers (AU and beyond). Mainly, this is designed to make the case that even if you start out as a shy person, the universe (or perhaps God) may have plans that project you into the great controversies of the day. It has been fun to write because it is nice to reconnect with people from my past who gave me wonderful opportunities or who disagreed with me a great deal. It also gave me a chance to write about my one encounter with actress Lauren Bacall.
Boston: We’re facing some difficult times right now. The Supreme Court continues to undermine the separation of church and state, and Christian nationalism is firmly entrenched in our national politics. Many people feel despair. In your view, is there cause for hope?
Lynn: I do wish that I had urged the Board of Trustees of Americans United to have us spend more time on some of the structural issues of American governance, such as expanding the size of the Supreme Court and ending the filibuster (although I urged its use myself on some issues). I wrote a previous book called God & Government which assumed at its conclusion that Hillary Clinton would be the next president. I feel despondent myself some days, but to live in that state for long is a contribution to a kind of national suicide wish.
We’ve got no real alternative to continuing the struggle for real justice in America which includes, at its root, the maintenance of a decent distance between the institutions of religion and government. I am happy to see the extraordinary efforts in that direction that Americans United continues to make.