My Season In The Sun

Giving Theocrats The Devil In Florida And Louisiana

Americans United members in Florida frequently see me in their neck of the woods in January or February. This is not completely random, but neither is it just an excuse to escape from some of Washington, D.C.’s frequently miserable winter weather.

I get many of these winter invitations because chapter leaders and heads of speaker series and other venues tell me, “We can guarantee you more attendees because none of the ‘snowbirds’ will have left yet.” It makes sense.  

No matter what the season or the location, it is always good to get a little advance publicity for your arrival. It’s unusual for it to be quite as dramatic as that provided by my visit to the Tampa area, though. The night I was to speak to a combined Americans United, ACLU and Unitarian gathering, a front page story in the St. Petersburg Times chronicled the troubles of Bill Keller, a local evangelist.  

Mr. Keller’s problems were caused largely by me, a fact noted in the article. Keller had posted comments on his ministry’s Web site during the presidential primary season warning Republicans that a vote for Mitt Romney (a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) was the same as “voting for satan.”  

We at Americans United felt this crossed the line drawn by the federal tax code, which bars non-profits from endorsing or opposing any candidate for public office. Thus, we reported Keller’s actions to the Internal Revenue Service. Some months later, we learned that the IRS was indeed investigating Keller’s ministry; some of the details of that investigation were the subject of the press account. 

It happens that Keller has a radio show every weeknight at 11 p.m. and had learned that I was in the area. He got in touch with Harold Brockus, the retired UCC pastor who heads our chapter in South Pinellas County, to find out if I could join him that evening for his show. 

Who am I to turn down any free publicity for the cause? Although I declined to physically show up at his studio lest I be met by a mob of his enraged fans, I did spend a half hour on the phone from my hotel.

The discussion was actually pretty cordial under the circumstances, but I was truly amazed by one thread of the conversation. Keller argued that the “Satan” reference was not necessarily a call to vote against Romney; it was, he asserted, just a theological statement. 

What?! 

I didn’t really get a satisfactory answer to my inquiry about how linking a candidate to the devil could be viewed in anything like a positive light. If any of you philosophers or linguists out there figures it out, please let me know.

What I did discover in Deerfield Beach, Clearwater and Orlando and then over at several events in New Orleans was that nobody really thinks the battle to preserve real religious freedom is over. I wasn’t coming to town with a brand new, unheralded warning. 

I may have told audiences a few tidbits about how President Barack Obama had failed to clean up the “faith-based” initiative or shared a little gossip about possible Supreme Court vacancies, but audiences were pretty well informed about some of the threats even closer to their homes.

Floridians seemed well aware that they dodged a bullet when two state constitutional amendments gutting religious freedom were knocked off the November ballot by a lawsuit and are acutely aware that they could return through the initiative route in the near future. They are also keeping an eye on various proposals to slip religion into public schools.

Over in the “Big Easy” (where I missed Mardi Gras by three days just in case you thought I was some party animal), audiences seemed to concur with my assessment that their state legislature had become, as I put it in an after-dinner speech, a “veritable Petri dish of bad ideas; an oven of crackpottery.” 

You might recall that just last year Louisiana passed a new law, enthusiastically signed by Gov. Bobby Jindal, that allows “supplemental” material to be used along with the biology text when teaching about evolution in public schools. It was obviously designed to give an opening to “intelligent design” nonsense. But as far as I know, no school has actually started to add anything because Americans United and the Louisiana ACLU have already warned that we would be tag-teaming any such effort in court.

One of the things that AU does nationally is support state opposition to these kinds of dangerous ideas. The coordinator of these efforts is Dena Sher, who writes legislators on AU’s behalf outlining our position on bills that affect church-state separation.

Dena also works with local members and activists to coordinate a grassroots response and drafts talking points for lobbying visits and language for media interventions, including letters to the editor. She also has an extraordinary national network of contacts to put people in State A in touch with people in State B who successfully fought some similar bad idea a year or two earlier. 

It’s a big country, but working together, like-minded folks can pull up a lot of weeds in their states’ constitutional gardens.

So, does anybody want me to speak next February in New Mexico?

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.