December 2016 Church & State - December 2016

An Alternative To Despair: Stand Up, Strategize And Start Fighting Back

  Barry W. Lynn

I was leaving the office one night a few days after the election and did what I always do when someone gets on the elevator on a lower floor. I say “Hello, how are you doing?” 

The man who got in said, with more than a touch of irony, “As a young Muslim man, I am just waiting for my notice to report to a detention center.”

Like so many people I know – and so many of you who have contacted us or increased your level of personal or financial support – the results of Nov. 8 left me in shock. When I got to the office on Wednesday, we held a staff meeting, we talked one on one and we began to plan for the future.

Many people writing to our staff or posting on Facebook described the week after the election as a period when they went through all of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ “stages of grief” upon being notified of having a likely fatal illness – from “denial” through other reactions and finally to “acceptance.”

The analogy is not perfect. When a person with a serious illness reaches that final period, she or he will die. When an institution or a movement reaches that acceptance moment, it cannot die. There is no realistic and responsible choice but to continue to fight for what it believes in.

Planning for the battle ahead under changed circumstances is essential. President-elect Donald Trump has a disturbing record of promoting bad church-state positions, and the 81 percent of self-described evangelicals who supported him expect him to carry through on them, quickly.

Congress is still controlled by a party that in general opposes most of what Americans United stands for. The Supreme Court, still at only eight members, could be populated by some of the 20 candidates Trump revealed during the campaign, and they are, in the main, opposed to AU’s view of what it takes to protect “religious liberty.”

This is a far cry from what many of us had expected:  a shift in power in the Senate, someone forward-looking on social issues as president and the likelihood of a Supreme Court that would be broadly supportive of a justice agenda for everyone in this country.

Instead, we are planning a strategy for dealing directly with a landscape that at first blush resembles some kind of dead zone. In the Senate, for example, there are still procedural actions that can delay or even eliminate consideration of some of the president-elect’s worst ideas. My friend and ally in so many church-state battles during the Reagan years, then-Republican Sen. Lowell Weicker of Connecticut, used to tell me. “It is the Senate, not the Supreme Court, that is the last bastion of protection for the rights of the people.”

Just a public awareness of his intention to use filibusters against legislation he saw as violations of First Amendment principles had a legendary effect of making bad ideas suddenly go away.

There are already plans to bolster contact with supporters and chapters about specific interventions in legislative and executive branch matters, including “town halls” over the web. AU’s Legal Department has already assessed strategic approaches to courts should they become gradually less favorable to our interests. We will also bolster our social media outreach with the hiring of a high-level director of digital strategies.

A few years ago, I responded to a speech in New York City by a well-known editor of a high-profile magazine who seemed to be depressed about the state of affairs during the George W. Bush presidency and discouraged by the outlook for any change.  I can’t recall every point of my response to his speech, but I do remember concluding with the thought: “To be apathetic at this point in our history is an act of national suicide.”

My view of this moment in history is even clearer: We have no option but to battle against expressions of bigotry, homophobia, Islamaphobia and every other bad tendency in the records of the president-elect and his already disappointing staff and cabinet picks. 

A call on my cell phone interrupted my brief encounter with that young man in the elevator. If it had not, I would have told him (for what it may have been worth):  “If they do start registering Muslims, in advance of even worse consequences, I will sign up as one myself.”  

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

Congress needs to hear from you!

Urge your legislators to co-sponsor the Do No Harm Act today.

The Do No Harm Act will help ensure that our laws are a shield to protect religious freedom and not used as a sword to harm others by undermining civil rights laws and denying access to health care.

Act Now