Barry Lynn, an ordained minister and lawyer, began serving as the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State in 1992. He just retired on Monday and in an interview with the Washington Post he shared some of his thoughts on the current culture war between religious conservatives and liberals.
Lynn has appeared thousands of times on TV and radio over the last 25 years defending church and state separation. His opponents in these appearances have often been conservative figures like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.
In the interview, Lynn cited both data and his own anecdotal experience that he says show that as a whole, Americans are becoming increasingly intolerant of government-supported expressions of religion. “I think the courts are out of step. I think the president is out of step,” Lynn stated.
While speaking about the Supreme Court’s upcoming case concerning a Colorado baker who refused to service same-sex couples on the grounds that it violated his religious beliefs, Lynn had this to say, “I think there’s a very good chance our perspective will prevail. I hold out hope of defeating the claim because it’s such a sweeping argument about excluding people. It could affect not just gay people but we face the astonishing possibility of rewriting the principle that if you serve the public you must serve everybody. We can and should prevail.”
Speaking about things in a broader sense, Lynn said that he does feel as the things have advanced overall. “I don’t believe this administration’s negative view will prevail very long because it’s inconsistent with what the American people want. They don’t believe government money should go to promote religion. Their hearts and minds are far, far moved from where they were 25 years ago…I think there is an enormous growth in tolerance…Once you make a certain amount of progress, you never get back to the same starting point. People have become more tolerant, more accepting.”
Lynn went on to say, “It’s only a bad time because the Supreme Court looks to be at genuine risk of falling into the hands of a majority of so-called Originalists. I do this sermon called ‘The Two Worst Ways to Make Policy: Constitutional Originalism and Biblical Literalism.’ The Bible is a wonderful book, but it’s not an ethics textbook, that’s not how it was created.”
Talking about where he derives his morality from, if not strictly from the Bible, Lynn said, “I do try and measure my actions based on: ‘What is the pain this might cause someone else?’ If there is real pain there, this doesn’t feel like something I ought to do. I wish others would look at their Christianity through that same frame.” I do, too, Mr. Lynn. I do, too.
While Lynn and I disagree on the existence of God, we clearly agree on the separation of church and state. As Lynn himself would say regarding our disagreement on God’s existence, “We’ll debate that for 2,000 years, but we have to protect the Constitution and we have 25 years to get that right.” We need more allies among the religious who are like Lynn, who recognize that mixing religion and government is a terribly dangerous idea. Hopefully Lynn’s optimism about the advances we have made over the last 25 years will hold true, and continue. Enjoy your retirement, Barry.