God and Government: Twenty-Five Years of Fighting for Equality, Secularism, and Freedom of Conscience

  • By Rev. Barry W. Lynn
  • Prometheus Books
  • 334 pp.

This take-down of the Religious Right is more a screed than a story.

After the Scopes “Monkey” trial in 1925 and a handful of other embarrassing defeats, many Christian fundamentalists beat a retreat into the American cultural brush. They had not, however, gone down without a fight. As George Marsden wrote in Fundamentalism and American Culture, “Fundamentalism had an aspect of the desperation of those making a last stand for a dying civilization.” Precisely for that reason, it was a bitter struggle.

By the time the war was over, many fundamentalists had thrown in the towel and begun to focus instead on millennial expectations and personal holiness. Like many Americans before them, they came to believe that religion should be personal, between God and the human being, and not dictated by what statesmen find to be politically expedient — especially if those statesmen have some sort of liberal agenda.

This withdrawal, however, opened the way both for liberal Christian efforts to reform society and for a greater separation of church and state.

However, with the rise of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and the Moral Majority in the 1980s, many Christian fundamentalists renewed their efforts to make America a “Christian nation,” becoming increasingly politicized and hostile to minorities, the LGBT community, immigrants, non-believers, and those who held other religious beliefs.

Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, has spent the last 25 years fighting to keep Washington out of the hands of such people and working to avoid their purported goal: a corporate theocracy.

His latest book, God and Government: Twenty-Five Years of Fighting for Equality, Secularism, and Freedom of Conscience, compiles many of his columns, speeches, and other occasional writings to give us an insider’s view of the fight between those exploiting religion to acquire political power and organizations like Americans United, which works to keep religion out of politics. One would expect Lynn’s book to be loaded with intrigue and exceedingly relevant to current political debates.

One would be wrong.

The pieces that make up most of God and Government are slapped together in an almost haphazard manner, and the topics Lynn chooses to address — prayer in schools, Evolution, vouchers, the tactics of the Religious Right, his own political and media connections — lack a strong connecting thread.

It’s natural to cheer when Lynn reminisces about putting Rev. Jerry Falwell or Sen. Jesse Helms in his place, but some of the joy is lost when he refers to his own repartees as “stinging,” recalls the “humbling” experience of speaking before a million people for a minute or two, and gleefully tells the reader about the awards he’s won. One can picture him dancing in an ecstasy of schadenfreude after getting the better of his opponents.

Certainly, if the reader is patient and willing to endure Lynn’s hubris and God and Government’s lack of coherence, she’ll find some good information about the underhanded tactics of the Religious Right, the dangers in publicly funded faith-based initiatives, and legal wranglings about the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment. But most readers will not get far enough into this screed to mine those gems.

If they did, however, they would discover that Lynn’s hatred of the Religious Right extends to conservative religious charities.

“The greed of these groups is insufferable,” he writes. “In many communities Catholic Charities, the Salvation Army, and the domestic arm of World Vision suck up such a high percentage of funding that about one third of the smaller shelters, agencies, crisis centers and training programs have gone out of business since 2008. To compound the problem, the big boys have the audacity to say: ‘if you make us abide by a lot of government rules or the civil rights acts, we’ll stop working and the poor will be without help.’”

The “threats” made by these groups to stop serving the poor, though, are rather hard to track down. Who leveled these threats? Lynn claims they were made when these charities said they would have to shut down if they were not allowed to discriminate based on religion in their hiring practices.

Of course, it’s not surprising that a Catholic, Muslim, evangelical, or atheist charity would want to hire Catholics, Muslims, evangelicals, or atheists. Non-discrimination laws may prevent these organizations from continuing to drill clean-water wells in Mali (World Vision), provide permanent housing to indigent women and children (Catholic Charities), or operate soup kitchens (Salvation Army) and also continue to be what they are: religious charities.

Let’s say that Lynn is correct in claiming these nonprofits have been involved in violations of the Establishment Clause by taking federal monies. It’s still rather odd to contend that a charity is making “threats” to cease to exist.

Unfortunately, this isn’t even the most painful moment one endures in God and Government. Lynn saved that for the cover. There the reader encounters his title of “Reverend” (he is a minister in the United Church of Christ) and his claim to have spent the last 25 years fighting for “secularism.”

It’s safe to assume Lynn doesn’t want an entirely non-religious society. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be out there propagating religion. Instead, his definition of secularity has to do with his particular take on the Establishment Clause: “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

The rub is that Lynn seems to want religion out of the public arena entirely. Anything state or federal authorities touch must be scrubbed clean of religion to safeguard against theocratic takeover, and the social gains liberal Christianity has made in the 20th century will have to take a back seat.

But if religion cannot be in the public arena at all, where can it be freely exercised? The only possible answer is “in the private sphere.” Religion should be personal, between God and the human being, and not dictated by what statesmen find to be politically expedient — especially if those statesmen have a conservative agenda.

Some readers may smirk at the similarity between the fundamentalist withdrawal and what appears to be Lynn’s own political theology. One can only hope that Lynn himself comes to see the irony.

Joel Looper is a Ph.D. candidate in religion at the University of Aberdeen.

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