Twenty-five years ago today, Sept. 22, 1992, the governing body of Americans United voted to hire a fellow named Barry W. Lynn to be the new executive director of Americans United.
A lawyer and United Church of Christ minister, Barry hit the ground running. One of the things he did best was irritate the Religious Right groups that hate church-state separation – a proud legacy he continues to this day. Leaders of these groups were flummoxed. How is it that a Christian minister had emerged as their most articulate opponent?
They didn’t get it. Barry supported separation of church and state precisely because he is a religious leader. Barry knew that far from being the enemy of faith, the church-state wall is its protective barrier. It gives all Americans the right to believe – or not – as they see fit, guided by conscience.
As Barry prepares to retire in November, I can’t help but recall some of his “greatest hits” – that is, attacks on him by the Religious Right that were especially notable. One occurred in March 1996, after Barry stood before a bank of microphones at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., and announced the launch of a new effort called Project Fair Play.
Americans United was motivated to act after a mega-church in Houston announced that it was sponsoring a special effort to take over the local Republican Party by electing church members to public offices. AU promptly reported the church to the Internal Revenue Service and decided the time was right to start a new project to stop similar abuses in other houses of worship. The March 19 press conference was designed to outline the new project to protect the Johnson Amendment.
TV preacher Pat Robertson didn’t think much of it. After a report about Project Fair Play aired on Robertson’s “700 Club” program, the volatile televangelist looked into the camera and growled, “In my humble opinion, anybody who would turn a church in to the IRS is a little bit lower than a child molester – Barry!” He went on to liken AU to Nazis.
For 25 years, Barry W. Lynn has been defending the wall of separation between church and state.
The hits just kept on coming. During one memorable 2003 exchange on CNN, Barry, in the course of debating Jerry Falwell, offered to preach at his church. An angry Falwell exploded, “I wouldn’t trust you to preach the gospel out on the corner!”
I also enjoyed the back-handed compliment James C. Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, once gave Barry: “Every time I turn around, he’s whacking me for something.”
The Religious Right has taken its fair share of potshots at Barry over the years, but they won’t have him to kick around much longer. And while Barry may miss the spirited give and take with the theocrat brigade, he has certainly earned the right to take a break. For the past 25 years, Barry has been squaring off with opponents of church-state separation in the media, zipping across the country giving speeches, writing books, inspiring local activists to defend separation in their communities, delivering testimony before Congress, meeting with allies and overseeing day-to-day operations at Americans United – among other things.
On Nov. 2, AU is sponsoring an Evening of Celebration at the National Geographic Society here in Washington to honor Barry (and recognize the 70th anniversary of Americans United). General admission tickets for the event are sold out (though we still have sponsorship tickets), and if you can’t attend or want to support AU by getting a message to Barry to balance out some of that Religious Right bile, you have a few options. You can purchase an ad or place a special message to Barry in the program booklet.
As I look back over the last quarter century, I get a clear picture of how vital Barry has been to the life of this organization. I hope you agree. If you would like to express your appreciation for Barry’s 25 years of work standing guard on the church-state wall, now is the time to act. Visit au.org/celebrate to become a sponsor, place an ad or write your very own tribute to Barry!