I was introduced at a New York City fundraiser in 1975 by former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark as a “young man who I think has signed on to the long haul for social justice.”
Over the years, whenever I considered moving into a trade association or a for-profit company, I thought about that introduction and lost interest in those other jobs. Indeed it has already been a long haul – and it isn’t over yet.
However, this path was never one I thought about when I was in high school. I had plans to embark on a more traditional career, such as teaching or serving as a pastor in a rural community. I saw those jobs then (and still do) as important vocations in which people could be helped one on one.
The most active I was in high school was delivering Christmas trees to impoverished families in the south end of Bethlehem, Pa., with whom I had previously rarely come in contact in that socially segregated city.
College opened my eyes more clearly to the troubling nature of the Vietnam War, particularly when I attended a big rally at United Nations Plaza in New York on the day that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. controversially linked the war to poverty and race discrimination in American cities.
Later, I saw the seeds of second-wave feminism and learned of the appalling power of religious groups to regulate the private lives and decisions of American women.
By graduate school in Boston, I was trying to figure out what linked the various actions that caused so much suffering: from a callous disregard for the health of children who lived in buildings with deadly lead paint to gross disparity in the provision of health care services.
It seemed it was a total lack of empathy, an utter inability to even recognize the pain that you weren’t going through yourself. I was in seminary at the time, now planning to be a psychological counselor. A few unusual occurrences during my clinical training, though, shifted my outlook. I found that many of the patients I dealt with needed legal help more than the assistance of a young minister with limited life experience.
The United Church of Christ was advertising for an intern to deal with the after-effects of Vietnam. The position was in Washington, D.C., which had a number of well-regarded law schools that offered night classes. Getting that position and being accepted at Georgetown’s Law Center gave me the opportunity to learn more about how to link people of differing philosophical views toward a common goal, and how to forge creative, bipartisan compromises in Congress (something nearly unheard of today).
I also started to do television and radio, preferring the latter because you didn’t have to dress up. I did more of this when I was hired by the American Civil Liberties Union to work on a variety of First Amendment issues, including the separation of church and state.
That was the issue that really stoked my passion because I felt that the one strand of disingenuous policy that linked so many bad political solutions was the effort of some religious leaders to displace the Constitution with their sometimes idiosyncratic views of a sacred text. I took the job leading Americans United in 1992 – and the rest is history.
As a kid, I never dreamed that I would end up debating the late William F. Buckley Jr. (Buckley was once a hero of mine until I saw him debate at Lehigh University and realized that he simply had no empathy for the less fortunate.) I never thought I’d be on “Meet The Press” or be interviewed by Larry King. It never occurred to me that I might speak to a million people at the March for Women’s Lives or get an award for “creative citizenship” from the Nation Institute and the Puffin Foundation. I never thought I would write books or help orchestrate hundreds of concerts to raise awareness of religious freedom among inter-generational audiences.
I retire next month, so this will be my last column for Church & State. I am genuinely sorry to end this quarter-century of activism, but I leave AU in good hands. The staff of Americans United is the best group of people I have ever worked with anywhere. Our supporters around the country have become friends even when I haven’t personally met them. Be assured that my activism on this issue, and others dear to me, will continue – but in different forms.
It has been a great trip, and I’m thankful to all of you who made it possible.
Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. He will retire on Nov. 2, 2017, after more than 25 years of dedicated leadership at the helm of AU.