Editor’s Note: Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn announced last month that he plans to retire at the end of this year. Lynn, who has led AU since 1992, discussed his tenure recently with Church & State.
Q. During your tenure, Americans United went from a budget of $1.8 million to $7 million and grew from 10 employees to 37. How did you do that?
Lynn: AU did have a modest budget, small staff and only one on-staff lawyer when I got here. I knew that we needed a goal and a plan for growth. Luckily, there were some remarkably talented people here when I arrived, and together we made it happen.
Q. What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced over the past 25 years?
Lynn: When I was hired, a few of my friends said, “You’ll get bored quickly. How many issues can really be addressed by focusing on separation of church and state?” Little did they know! The past 25 years have been a never-ending variety of efforts by fundamentalists to try to dynamite the wall of separation between church and state.
Sometimes it was obvious, like the effort to amend the Constitution launched by Newt Gingrich in 1995 or when Alabama’s Chief Justice Roy Moore decided to erect a two-and-a-half-ton monument to his favorite version of the Ten Commandments in the center of the state’s judicial building. Other times the assaults have been more subtle and just as dangerous, such as the constant efforts to weaken public education and church-state separation through school voucher plans.
Q. You’ve been a fixture in the media. What has that been like?
Lynn: I never hesitated to appear on radio and television, even if the deck seemed stacked against me. I remember one period in the early 1990s after Bill Clinton took office when it seemed that Jerry Falwell and I were on Fox News about every other day.
Combative shows on Fox, CNN and MSNBC were always fun, but those segments were usually pretty short. I really preferred the chance to go a little deeper. I loved doing the kind of show that William F. Buckley did for years called “Firing Line” – a formal debate, two hours long and unedited, with four experts on each team, held before a live audience at a college. To do well on that show, you had to know your topic.
There have been high-quality shows. Until weeks ago, PBS had a great show called “Religion and Ethics Newsweekly” with Bob Abernathy and Kim Lawton, and Dennis Wholey still hosts a show now called “This Is America and the World.” Recently deceased radio host Alan Colmes was a wonderful interviewer – even when he was half of Fox’s “Hannity and Colmes” television show. My favorite appearances these days are on Thom Hartmann’s radio and TV show, Bill Press’ radio show and the brilliantly funny John Fugelsang on Sirius XM.
Q. Americans United exists to support and protect separation of church and state. Why does that all-American principle get attacked so much by politicians?
Lynn: Frankly, it is harder to convince politicians about the value of church-state separation than to convince the rest of Americans. Several polls, for example, show that a clear majority of people believe that if an organization receives government funding for a social program, that group should not be able to discriminate in hiring staff for that program. They also believe that any charity (including religious institutions) receiving a tax exemption should not be able to engage in partisan politicking.
However, votes in Congress on these matters are always very close, out of an overwhelming fear of pushback from constituents. Back when there were frequent battles over a constitutional amendment to return formal prayer to schools, politicians would frequently explain that they were worried about election-year opposition because of a “no” vote, but there was scant evidence of anyone losing her or his seat because of such a vote.
There are, of course, other fallacies that I hear constantly, including that “separation of church and state is not in the Constitution,” or that the only way to interpret the First Amendment is to uncover the “original intent” of the Framers. There is also a view that separationists are all non-religious, a fact disproven by the very membership of Americans United itself which has a rich diversity of beliefs about any divine presence or purpose to the universe.
Q. You’ve tangled with a lot of Religious Right leaders over the years. What has that been like?
Lynn: I have quite positive relationships with some on the Religious Right, like Jay Sekulow who runs Pat Robertson’s legal operation, and Janet and Craig Parshall with whom I interact every month on Janet’s Christian radio show “In The Market.” I wrote a column about how this is the best hour to hear an in-depth discussion of some First Amendment issues, and although I get occasional supportive callers, it is a golden opportunity to mainly “preach to a very different choir” and I relish doing it.
When TV and radio host Ed Schultz called me to go live after Jerry Falwell’s death, I agreed but said I didn’t have any “warm and fuzzy” stories to tell even though Jerry and I had well over 100 debates. Jerry was a true believer; facts meant nothing to him. On one occasion, we were preparing to debate the teaching of evolution in public schools, and I mentioned a story that had run in The New York Times that very day about the discovery of a vital intermediate fossil. Falwell told me that he doesn’t “read that kind of stuff.” This sounded like a new version of “don’t bother me with the facts.”
Pat Robertson, on the other hand, sometimes has a sense of humor. After AU challenged bond funding for his Christian college, Regent University, and unfortunately lost, he wrote me a letter about how he was sure I worked hard to defeat his efforts and enclosed a $100 bill, telling me to take my wife out for a nice dinner. (I sent $100 to Planned Parenthood, but still have Robertson’s bill.)
Even Focus on the Family’s James Dobson once invited me to join him backstage at a Religious Right conference after he noticed that I had bought a ticket to the event, an invitation I accepted, of course.
But some people are just hateful, like the California pastor Wiley Drake, who has launched “imprecatory prayer” campaigns for the death of me and my family.
Q. You spent a lot of time on the road, often speaking to AU chapters. Why is that so important?
Lynn: I have really enjoyed speaking to our chapters around the country and being at dinners and lunches for our allied organizations. I enjoy the connections that can be made – to help launch local coalitions, to demonstrate to non-AU groups that religious fundamentalism is the poison that runs through so many public policy debates, to meet plaintiffs in our lawsuits, and to enjoy meals with our chapter leaders. We work very hard to make sure local folks know that we honor their work, and that we are continuing to find new ways to interact with supporters.
I have always been happy to address AU chapters, humanist gatherings, religious institutions and the regional and national conferences many of them hold. There is still a thrill of speaking to 20 people in a small Unitarian church in the South and to a million people on the Mall for the March for Women’s Lives, as I did in 2004.
Q. A lot of people are feeling uneasy about our current political situation. Is there cause for hope?
Lynn: I have been in Washington since the time of Richard Nixon, and lived through the Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush years. In those administrations, whether working at AU or somewhere else, I found that there were people in the White House orbit that seemed vastly more reasonable than anyone in the Trumposphere.
The disappointment was real for me and for so many of our members on election night. There is only one of two paths to take when we see the opponents to church-state separation appearing ascendant. We can decide to disengage and live on #NotMyPresident internet forums, or we can become the loyal opposition and use every tool at our disposal to fight misguided Trump policies. To me, that’s no contest.
One of the reasons I decided to retire now is that I firmly believe that a younger person who can deal with the policies of this administration, whether it lasts for three more years or seven, is essential to AU’s growth. Just as I was glad to move AU forward, this is the time for yet another growth spurt.
Q. After a life of activism, you’re not likely to just fade away. What lies ahead for you?
Lynn: I’ve had a passion for social justice since I was a teenager. While I do plan to spend some time relaxing and enjoying visits with my children, I could never disengage from activism. I’ll still be out there, so the next time you’re at a protest rally or march, keep your eyes open. I just might be hoisting a sign next to you.