Barry Lynn, head of a national organization fighting to keep the separation between church and state, is no God-hater. In fact, the 57-year-old executive director of Americans United is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and holds a theology degree from Boston University. Lynn, who has headed Washington, D.C.-based Americans United since 1992, spoke with WW by phone before his appearances next week in Portland and Vancouver about how the current state of politics doesn't exactly bode well for his group's battle, and why Jerry Falwell might want to drown him.
WW: Given the country's rightward political drift, aren't you losing the battle to keep church and state separate?
Barry Lynn: No, I don't think we're losing the battle yet, but we're sliding to the edge of the cliff. If people do not wake up, we could lose the whole principle of church-state separation. For right now, we're keeping our heads above water.
There is a reservoir of common sense in the American people that make people nervous about the religious right and the power they have ... There are a lot of clouds on the horizon, more than I've ever experienced. This isn't the best time for the protection of civil liberties. For people like me, we have to keep fighting.
How do you interpret the growing push to teach intelligent design in public schools?
There really is a lot of misunderstanding about the nature of science, and that's because the media has done a less-than-stellar job of explaining science, what it is and why it's important. It's pretty easy to get confused. There's no mechanism to discuss science seriously, how much we do know about evolution, and how evolution as a scientific theory is no different than gravity.
Do you believe having "In God We Trust" on our money violates the church-state divide?
We didn't have that until after the Civil War. If I would go back, I would take it off the money, but it's not that huge of an issue. That's the same money we use to bribe politicians or buy that drink that gets us drunk. Apparently we don't "trust" too much.
OK. Should legislatures be allowed to start session with prayer?
These are grown-up people, presumably. If you want to have a religious expression, why don't you get together with like-minded people and pray together and then go in and conduct the business of government?
Is there any way to craft an appropriate "moment of silence'' in a public-school classroom?
I think it's a silly exercise. Yes, you could probably craft something—I used to teach school, and if I wanted a moment of silence, I would say, "Be quiet." My son, when he was a senior in high school, they instituted this moment of silence. I asked my son, "What did you do"? He said, "I calculated." He said if you take from kindergarten to 12th grade, that's six and half days of educational time we use. I think it points out they are thinking in a moment of silence about the guy or girl next to them and how to ask them out. That's called reality. The whole thing is silly, and it's unconstitutional. It's kind of a scam.
Don't you run the risk of turning off the apathetic middle with hard-line stances insisting on separation?
If I give a lecture or a speech, say, to a Kiwanis Club, I don't talk about coins or silent prayer. I say, "Look, let's look at these issues." I talk about the government giving money to a religious organization. I ask, "Do you think preachers should be both tax-exempt and endorse candidates from the pulpit"—and an overwhelming amount of people in this country say no.
Some of your critics say you're calling for a godless America.
That's probably the nicest thing they've said. That's just ridiculous. If you accept God, then it's hard for the government to kick God out of anything. If you believe in a power greater than all human power, it's kind of odd to think that you could get rid of that power by passing a law or not passing a law. I would say Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson would be more comfortable back in the days of the Puritans when they could write the law and drown you if they thought you were a heretic. I think in my case they would.
Lynn will speak on "Church-State Separation—A Conservative Idea" at 1 pm Monday, Nov. 7, at Washington State University in Vancouver, Wash. 1402 NE Salmon Creek Ave., Student Services Building room 110. Free.
Lynn also will speak at 7 pm at Portland State University's Smith Memorial Center Ballroom, 1825 SW Broadway. Free.
Americans United's website is www.au.org .