The AU Road Show

From The Big Apple To The Big Chill

One of the things I enjoy most about being the executive director of Americans United is the opportunity to do presentations at interesting events. I’ve written about doing stand-up comedy in Salt Lake City and speaking at the 2004 March for Women’s Lives.

The diversity of audiences is always a challenge. I was reminded of this recently when I presented back-to-back talks to two very different groups. The first was to some New Yorkers on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the second to a banquet crowd at Pat Robertson’s Regent University in Virginia Beach. 

The reaction from these two crowds was, to say the least, different. It was as if the address was being given to the occupants of alternative universes.

I went to New York because philanthropist Robert Rosenkrantz became enamored of a debate series in England called “Intelligence Squared,” a very lively program designed to literally change the minds of those in the audience. To measure the change, people are polled before and after the debate about whether they approve or disapprove (or have not made up their minds) of the proposition being advanced by the affirmative team. 

I was approached some months ago to be on the “yes” team for the proposition: “America is too damn religious.” Now, I had to think about this. I don’t think it is my business to have an opinion on whether American citizens are too religious. The point of preserving religious freedom is that people can pick from among nearly 2,000 identifiable religions or reject them all and join the millions of religious skeptics.

I interpreted the proposition this way: America is a political entity, directed at any moment in time by a political leadership of a certain kind. For the last six years in Washington, the president has consistently represented himself as what I call a “theologian in chief,” using religion to justify all manner of policies, from the war in Iraq to the curtailment of most stem-cell research. He also has an affection for acting as though the First Amendment really doesn’t exist, thus creating the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives to shovel money into religious ministries and promoting more religion in public institutions.

What is just as bad, or worse, the president has attached himself to religion of a pernicious kind – that is to say, “damn” religion. It is a religion so weak-willed that it no longer thinks it can actually persuade people to accept its precepts and act based on the moral persuasiveness of preachers and other religious leaders, but needs the imprimatur of governments, funding by government (to fill in the collection plate gaps from voluntary givers who aren’t giving enough) and the conversion of moral precepts into legislative fiats. This is the kind of religion there is too much of in America.

When I made this argument in New York, the reaction was extremely positive.  Frankly, it was rip-roaringly positive. People thought it was a perfect close when I said that since I wasn’t running for any political office, I could end my eight minutes without uttering the phrase “God Bless America,” three words which are apparently automatically appended to the word-processing program of every member of Congress in both parties.

Upon reflection, I thought that I would try an expanded version of this argument at my banquet gig at Regent. I was to speak after a dinner honoring the winners of an International Moot Court competition (whose final round I helped to judge). The audience included many moot court teams from deeply conservative schools like Brigham Young University and Liberty University (and some secular places like Duke and Howard University), and many Regent staff and employees.

American Center for Law and Justice Chief Counsel Jay Sekulow introduced me and said the law school tries to bring in people with alternative points of view to demonstrate that people can “disagree without being disagreeable.” The reaction of the crowd started off well: They chuckled at my statement that being a minister and a lawyer meant I could forgive you but go on to sue you anyway.

But as the speech moved to what was wrong with the relationship between religion and government these days, I noticed many faces frozen into what could be mistaken for a Botox-induced visage of shock. The frostiness continued as I mentioned that it was a disgrace to Christianity that a December poll had shown more people (78 percent) wanted their local government to put up a Nativity scene than actually planned to attend a worship service for Christmas (59 percent). They weren’t too happy to be reminded that conservative columnist Cal Thomas has excoriated fellow Christians for going along with the “faith-based” initiative instead of digging deeper into their own pockets to fund the church’s work with the poor.

There were a few small clusters of nodding heads of affirmation. (A member of the Duke team later told me they were in a “silent amen corner.”) But basically this was one rough crowd, exercising the essence of the phrase, “polite applause.”

Call me peculiar, but I enjoy hearing people I don’t agree with and reading books that challenge my own thinking. I’m glad the folks at Regent do the same. And, yes, we won that New York debate by moving the 67 percent who agreed with us at the start to 70 percent at the end.

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