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Barry Lynn looks back on 25 years of separating church and state

(RNS) 'I think we have a dizzying level of religious freedom in this country, particularly if you’re in the religious majority,' said Lynn, who will soon step down as executive director of Americans United.

The Rev. Barry Lynn speaks at a rally outside the Supreme Court on March 23, 2016, in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of AU

(RNS) After a quarter-century, the Rev. Barry Lynn is retiring as head of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

In court, in congressional hearings and on cable television, Lynn has led the fight against school-sponsored prayer, religious symbols on public property and any law that allows government to privilege people of faith.

Lynn, 68, is an attorney but his audience is often more curious about his other credential, that of an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. As executive director of Americans United, he sought to vanquish what he calls the “twin evils”: the fundamentalism that insists on a literal reading of the Bible, and the originalism that interprets the Constitution only through the eyes of its framers.

RNS sat down with Lynn to talk about his career in the public eye, and the future under a president who seems eager to scale the wall dividing government and religion.

The Rev. Barry Lynn in 2010. Photo courtesy of AU

You spent your entire career arguing for the separation of church and state, and you’re a minister. That has to have given you some powerful credibility.

I was invited a couple of Easters ago to an atheists’ convention in Salt Lake City, and told them: “OK, I’m different. And it’s not just about ordination. It’s because I have this sock monkey.” The sock monkey is in the shape of a devil and I told them it represents the two things the religious right hates the most: Satan and evolution. It was a very well-received speech. I had a guy write to me afterwards. He said, “Who would have thought going to an atheists’ convention and I’d be most moved by a preacher.”

I never hide my ordination, but if it’s not relevant, it doesn’t come up. In the newspapers sometimes they do mention my ordination, sometimes they don’t. Fox News always refers to me as “Reverend.”

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What makes you different from people who share your views but say they can’t engage with biblical literalists or constitutional originalists?

I’m willing to deal with them because I believe that you find within this group — and they’re a huge interest group — elements of commonality and common sense.

I’ve debated (conservative Christian attorney) Jay Sekulow many, many times and I once asked him about the death penalty. He said, “I’m totally against it.” I said “Why?” He said “moral grounds,” and I asked him if he would say that publicly. He said “sure” and I said let’s make a little video together tomorrow on it. So he borrowed (televangelist) Pat Robertson’s studio and we did. I consider him a friend.

Sometimes you can appeal to people’s fundamental sense of fairness. I think that’s why you see religious right conservatives are not very involved in trying to repeal marriage equality. Once in a while you make a breakthrough.

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You count some victories in the fights against public school-sponsored prayer and teaching creationism in public schools. But you’re still very concerned about school vouchers. Why?

I don’t want to make it illegal for people to home-school their children but I think it’s not a good idea. If you go to a private school, and you’re using private money, and you’re the parents, you can kind of do what you want. But (Education Secretary) Betsy DeVos’ idea of just throwing money at school vouchers or tuition tax credits is horrible. It will help to destroy public education, the major institution where we learn to get along with other kinds of people.

Does public education work perfectly? No. And can private schools teach us to get along with each other? I taught at a private Catholic school in Boston for three years. It was the archdiocese’s determination that they were going to hire some non-Catholic teachers, like me. And they were going to integrate before the public schools were required to integrate. And it was a magnificent experience.

The Rev. Barry Lynn speaks at the ACLU in 2008. Photo courtesy of AU

What is the state of religious freedom in this country? 

I think we have a dizzying level of religious freedom in this country, particularly if you’re in the religious majority. And Republicans say, “No, we don’t.” But when you look at the examples they use today, they’re ancient, or just not true.

But you have to be consistent. In the case of a child who was not allowed to read the Bible on a school bus, if the family had called us instead of the conservative group they did call, we would have written the same letter on that child’s behalf. There was a school in California that had as part of its homework assignment to memorize prayers from the Quran. And that’s wrong. Imagine some teacher required public school students to get the Lord’s Prayer right and come in and recite it?

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What was your upbringing like in Bethlehem, Pa.?

Religion was very important in our family. I went to church all the time. I prepared for Sunday school classes. And my parents liked that.

My father worked for Bethlehem Steel and he sold slab and stone. He was pretty rock-ribbed Republican until they got into these social issues. Although he probably was pretty conservative on them personally, he didn’t understand why his Republican Party needed to talk about abortion. We went to an Evangelical and Reformed church and it joined with the Congregational Christian Churches when the merger occurred to form the United Church of Christ.

What’s your spiritual life like today?

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn has served as executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State since 1992. Photo courtesy of Tim Ritz

I pray. I take the rituals of religion very seriously and I take the questions raised by it more seriously: Is there a purpose to the universe? There doesn’t have to be something. Why is there anything? I always tell humanist groups, I am not here to convert you, I’m just here to tell you that if we have to figure whether God exists in order to save the Constitution, it will be dead and we’ll still be arguing about God in 2,000 years.

I try to have eclectic religious experiences. I do have a church I am a member of, a UCC church. I’m not here in Washington a lot of weekends but it gives me a chance to spend some time at churches in other places, speaking or preaching at them, or just being there. I do like a good gospel church.

You don’t lead a church but you seem to preside at a fair amount of weddings.

I love doing weddings. I did one this weekend at a Presbyterian church in Western Pennsylvania for my niece. I’ve done very eclectic weddings where people had varying degrees of interest in having spiritual content. But I have to talk to you. I have to know you to do your wedding. If I get a call and you say “I haven’t seen you for five years, I’m getting married on Saturday, would you do the service?,” the answer is no. Clergy get to choose. It’s an absurd claim that people would be forced to marry gay couples.

Foy Valentine, then-president of AU’s Board of Trustees, welcomes the Rev. Barry Lynn to AU in 1992. Photo courtesy of AU

Do you have a favorite Bible verse?

I do like James and I do like the paraclete’s saying in the Gospel of John, which is my favorite gospel. It’s about Jesus meeting with the disciples and they’re having a final meal and it’s clear that he’s going to be arrested and people are all upset about it. And he says, “You know, I may be leaving, but the Comforter, the Holy Spirit will come after me.”

It’s the promise of an ongoing revelation of God to humanity. That’s what the revelation of John is about. The United Church of Christ has embraced that Gracie Allen quote: “Don’t put a period where God has put a comma.”

How are you feeling about the issues you care about given the victory of President Trump, whose approach to church and state so often conflicts with yours?

There are some signs that the climate in Washington has engendered some real and genuine momentum in the electorate. I am happily surprised at the number of people that are showing up at demonstrations, starting with the Women’s March on Jan. 21.

Another thing that the election of Trump demonstrated is that it’s not enough to register people to vote. You have to get them to the polls.

I can’t predict the future but I think there will be some dramatic changes in the midterm elections. I am very optimistic about the trends in millennial thinking — the acceptance of evolution, the acceptance of science, and marriage equality. For the average millennial it just isn’t even an issue anymore. These are things that are a sign of a better future.

The Rev. Barry Lynn accepts the Puffin/Nation Prize for Creative Citizenship at the Nation Institute annual gala in New York City on Dec. 9, 2013. Photo courtesy of John Munson

What are you going to do next?

My daughter is having twins and my wife and I are going to help with them, our first grandchildren.

I have an idea for a weekend radio show involving musicians. There are a lot of songwriters who have very powerful social messages. So I’d have them on. I’m not leaving the planet, or even the country. But I think it’s important that institutions that work on issues respect the fact that new generations have to take the leadership or the entity is less likely to survive.

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