Flying The Friendly Skies

Going Coast To Coast (And Places In Between)

I was going to write this column about my recent coast-to-coast travels until I realized it was more complicated than that. It was actually coast-to-coast-to-coast-to-coast travel. That’s what you call it when you start in Sarasota, Fla., go to San Francisco, then head to Nashville and on to Ashland, Ore., and finally return home to Washington.

Why would anybody book such an arrangement? Maybe I should fire my travel agent! Actually, I have no one to blame but myself.

One of the thousands of things I like about this job is the chance to bring the message of church-state separation to all kinds of people in all kinds of venues. Sometimes I get invitations a year in advance; sometimes things pop up in a hurry but I feel a drive to “fit them in.”

I knew nearly a year ago that I would be heading to the Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in Sarasota and to the Jefferson Center in Ashland. Much more recently, I was offered the chance to do the second in a planned series of debates about pulpit politicking put on by the conservative activists at the Alliance Defense Fund and the Federalist Society. 

Those two groups invited me to do a debate at Stanford Law School near Palo Alto, Calif., a few days after the Sarasota event. AU’s development director, Marjorie Spitz Nagrotsky, got a brain wave: If I was going to Northern California, why not have an event to meet with some long-time donors in San Francisco the night before?

Who could say no to that?

Then I decided I’d hang around an extra day and go to nearby Mountain View to visit my son and his wife. (Several readers have inquired about why my children aren’t featured as often in this column as they used to be. The honest answer is that I don’t see them as often and therefore don’t know about all their daily life events that used to become metaphorical cornerstones for what I hoped were insightful columns.)

I returned to Washington – but not before a side trip to the extraordinary Unitarian-Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock on Long Island, N.Y., a community long associated with progressive causes through its sister foundation, the Veatch Program. There I spoke on a panel with the Rev. C. Welton Gaddy of The Interfaith Alliance and Dan Mach, senior attorney with the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. (I know, I also thought there might be groups out there hoping – or indeed praying – for a ceiling collapse that night, but I’m not naming names.)

Then it was back to cross-country meandering.

How could I turn down an invitation to do a debate on church-state issues with Craig Parshall, senior vice president of the National Religious Broadcasters at that group’s national convention in Nashville? Mixing the country music I like with the Constitution is a winning recipe. (I know some of you like opera and wonder how I got a Dolly Parton fixation. Don’t worry too much: NASCAR still eludes me.) 

We had a good time at the debate. A television correspondent from Romania said afterward that I am more likeable in person than in print. I think that’s better than the other way around – although it did make me wonder how many people in Romania read this magazine.

The next day the Nashville newspaper jokingly noted that the way people could tell who I was in the mass of attendees was that I was the guy with the horns. (Actually, I gave the reporter that line; he just borrowed it.)

After a quick departure, I flew to Ashland through Los Angeles. The Los Angeles-to-Oregon leg was on one of those new propeller-driven aircraft that use only about half the fuel of more conventional regional jets. It is an odd-looking plane, but it never caught on fire (you may recall one I was on did just that after leaving Tulsa a few years ago) and the turbulence didn’t require a lockdown of peanut and beverage service.

The next two days were spent doing media and meeting with supporters of the Jefferson Center before a public lecture. Ashland is known for its world-class Shakespeare Festival, but I resisted the impulse to quote from “Macbeth” before my presentation on the First Amendment, even though doing so would have allowed me to say, “Sure, I’ve done Shakespeare in Ashland.”

The more I use the new technologies of podcasting my radio show, blogging with Beliefnet, Huffington Post or AOL and announcing activities on Facebook, the more I realize the potential of these methods of communication. I don’t think, however, that they will ever replace for me the pleasure of just speaking to people one on one, shaking folks’ hands, sharing a meal and occasionally even having to deal with a complaint in public. 

I say that even with the annoyance of modern air travel. On the other hand, I have long had this vision that perhaps before retirement, some generous Americans United member will give us a tour bus – and then, like Tammy Wynette or Willie Nelson, I could just travel in an internet-equipped, air-conditioned home and visit every AU chapter in comfort. 

If you don’t know who Tammy or Willie are, look them up on Wikipedia.

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