I admit that I’m something of a political junkie. I can’t help it; I suppose I’ve lived in Washington too long.
In the weeks leading up to the November election, I couldn’t stop looking at the polls. CNN and other sites featured a “poll of polls” that collected the major national polls and averaged them. On top of that, I began monitoring individual state polls on various political blogs. Perhaps I was a tad obsessive, but it was either that or constantly monitoring the fluctuations of the stock market – and my stomach wasn’t up for that.
I was up late on election night. I watched John McCain’s gracious concession speech and then hung on to hear what President-Elect Barack Obama would have to say. The next day at the AU office, I noticed I wasn’t the only one looking a little bleary eyed.
Now it’s down to the hard work. I’ll leave stabilizing the stock market, creating jobs and managing the economy to the experts. My focus is elsewhere.
I’ve been traveling since the election, meeting with AU leaders, chapter officials and local activists. One week after the election, we convened a meeting in Washington for members of AU’s National Advisory Council and other activists. Then I went to New York City to meet with some of our supporters.
The same question seems to be on everyone’s lips: “What happens now?”
I can’t speak for our president elect, but I have my own thoughts on that. Last month, I joined religious leaders who are interested in responding to the Religious Right in a teleconference for bloggers and reporters. I was charged with the task of outlining a vision for separation of church and state in the post-George W. Bush era. Let me share with you what I came up with:
• Reform the “faith-based” initiative: Sure, I’d like to see this initiative abolished, but Obama has already said that won’t be happening. Ill-considered executive orders created many problems. Better ones could fix it. Let’s end religious discrimination with taxpayer money and stop proselytizing on the taxpayer’s dime. End the politicization of the office and cease using it as a slush fund to reward religious groups that back the administration. Obama has said he will do these things. I urge him to follow through.
• Stop evangelism in the military: The men and women who serve with honor in our armed forces deserve a full measure of religious freedom. It’s time to sever the tie between fundamentalist Christianity and the military. As I told participants during the conference call, “Let’s have no more ‘Team Jesus’ banners in the locker room of military academies and no more humiliation of cadets who don’t want to attend religious services.” A new commander-in-chief and the Department of Defense should do this promptly by regulatory changes.
• Base public policy on science, not theology: Religious groups should not have a veto over issues like stem-cell research, sex education for young people and the teaching of human origins in public school science classes. Objective research, empirical data and the consensus of the scientific community should guide us in these areas.
• Appoint federal judges who respect, not denigrate, our Constitution: Perhaps no issue is more important than this. The New York Times recently wrote about the huge number of judges appointed by Bush and their crabbed interpretation of our core freedoms. It is time for a change.
I have been in Washington long enough not to fall into the trap of believing that any one political figure, party or movement can act as a savior. As I told reporters, “There certainly has been a sea change in Washington politics in the past few weeks, but the sea has not parted.”
Politics is all about the art of compromise and consensus. While I am hopeful for meaningful change, I am aware that the work AU does will go on no matter who is occupying the White House or which party is in power.
I also know the strength of our opposition. While I strongly disagree with the views of people like James Dobson, Tony Perkins, Pat Robertson and others, I am careful not to underestimate them.
In the recent election, they won all three state referenda on same-sex marriage. In the bluer-than-blue state of California, Religious Right organizations and their allies came in at the last minute, raised a lot of money, organized certain churches and ran an aggressive (if misleading) ad campaign. They defied the polls and put the ban over the top. The “culture wars,” it seems, aren’t over yet.
I cast my first presidential ballot in the 1972 election (Richard Nixon vs. George McGovern – now that was a race!). Obviously not every candidate or cause I have backed has been victorious. I celebrate our democracy anyway.
But I celebrate our constitutional system even more. It places core rights and liberties beyond the reach of any majority vote. I treasure it, but I don’t take it for granted. It requires a vigorous defense – every day. That’s what the staff of Americans United and I will be doing this year, next year and the ones after that.
I’m counting on you to stand with us.
Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.