Of Allies And Anniversaries

Meeting Friends At The Intersection Of Religion And Politics

I’ve always been a fan of the actor Richard Dreyfuss – even before he starred in “Jaws.”

Recently, I had the chance to meet him at an event in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC), a great ally in the fight to preserve religious liberty.

Dreyfuss was the master of ceremonies for a celebration marking the RAC’s 50th anniversary. I was honored to have been invited to participate by the Center’s longtime director, Rabbi David Saperstein. My role was to speak briefly about the importance of the Center’s voice – and indeed all of the voices we can gather in defense of separation of church and state.

I was introduced by Jane Wishner, a long-time lawyer and activist who had been a legislative assistant for the Center back in the ’70s. I first met her then and have encountered her in other events over the years. Jane explained a number of programs that got her and many other young people involved with the RAC’s public policy work and then went on to say what a funny guy I was. When you get an introduction like that, it’s a good thing if you just happen to have a few zingers for the crowd.

For example, I mentioned that I was stuck in an airport on the way to San Antonio a few days earlier and started playing around in my head with the idea of incorporating some reference to every one of Dreyfuss’ films into my seven-minute address. I noted that this worked for a while with “The American President” and “Whose Life Is It Anyway?” but that I had to end the whole mental project when I realized he had also been in a film last year called “Piranha 3-D.” Not much to go with on that one.

Speaking of humor, at a reception before the program began, I ran into Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) whom, in a previous incarnation, I used to encounter at Christian Coalition meetings in Washington. (I assure you that he was getting comic material there, not trying to absorb the Coalition’s bad history and constitutional analysis.) We chatted about how strange it was to see the same kind of people who were there in the ’90s now roaming the halls of Congress with a Tea Party banner flying metaphorically over their heads.

At the RAC event, I was pleased to note that one of Dreyfuss’ major causes these days is to return real civics education to America’s public schools through a program called “The Dreyfuss Initiative.” According to the Initiative website, its mission is “To teach our kids how to run our country with common sense and realism, before it is time for them to run the country. If we don’t, someone else will run it and the experiment of government by, for and of the people will have failed.”

This is not just about teaching history and government classes but teaching the value of civility, debate and dissent. The program focuses on logic and critical thinking skills as well. This commonsense approach to schooling has fallen out of favor in the wash of “teaching to the test” momentum in recent years. Some schools have already removed “civics” classes from the curriculum.

I appreciated Richard’s description of the project because parts of it are on the same track that Americans United travels. For example, we discussed this topic during my trip to San Antonio. I keynoted a First Amendment Day celebration there, focusing on our constitutional freedoms.

An editor and a columnist from two of the local papers talked about the urgency of the free flow of information in a democracy, and I delivered an address on church-state issues. After the talk, I joined a panel of Baptist, Jewish and Lutheran clergy who asked me questions about my presentation and engaged the audience. The crowd was pretty diverse, and their questions to the panel added another dimension. (I was told that one guy in the back muttered that I was “an idiot.” It’s just too bad he didn’t change that utterance into a thoughtful question!)

During the San Antonio event, I was asked about how AU works with religious groups that engage in public advocacy yet still believe in the separation of church and state. The best answer is what I told the RAC. I noted that the organization is “faithful to both religious tradition and the Constitution. It does not shy away from the rich message of Isaiah in calling for economic justice in discussing the federal budget, but it also understands that elected officials must not be expected to rest their case on the scriptural interpretation of any group.”

We all bring personal experiences and our backgrounds to the table when making decisions about the policies we think are right for America. Politicians can and should listen to all of us, theist and atheist, without ever losing sight of the requirement that they act based on values consistent with the guarantees of the Bill of Rights, the construct of “equal protection of the laws” and other core constitutional principles.

Scripture-quoting contests on the floor of Congress or in state legislatures are not an appropriate way to set policy on any topic. Being serious about what judges sometimes call the Constitution’s “majestic qualities” is.

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