‘Freedom To Believe…Or Not’

From Nick News To Feminist Summits, The Message Remains The Same

I have just finished “watching myself” on Nickelodeon, the top-rated cable channel programmed for persons between ages six and fourteen. The show was a half-hour special hosted by Linda Ellerbee called “Freedom To Believe…Or Not.”

TV preacher Pat Robertson and I had been filmed, separately, last month to give our varying perspectives on the meaning of church-state separation. Most of the show was dedicated, though, to comments of young people trying to get a grasp of this constitutional principle.

When a producer originally called me she gently reminded me that this age group doesn’t know a great deal and that my comments should reflect that audience. My immediate thought was: “Actually, speaking to people who don’t think much is what I do regularly – when I appear on the Fox News Channel.” I bit my tongue rather than uttering that thought aloud.

Television is just one venue in which to discuss the Constitution – obviously each channel affording different opportunities. And, no, I have never appeared on the Cartoon Network or the Golf Channel. I’ve had a chance to do a few different types of forums lately.

I was given a terrific opportunity one Friday last month to speak on a panel at the Feminist Majority Foundation’s “Women, Money, Power” Summit looking at theocratically based human rights abuses in places like Afghanistan and Iran. My job as the final speaker was to, as one of the organizers told me, “bring it all back home” in nine minutes.

I tried to make it clear that fundamentalist doctrine ruling the political realm is dangerous, even deadly, no matter its cultural context. It was mid-morning, and I felt a little preacher-like. I tried, apparently successfully, to make it clear that as bad as things may be, people are getting their ire up and responding.

I concluded that “we are not going to be turning our country back to the bigots, we’re not going to turn it back to the fundamentalists, we’re not going to turn it back to the Tea Partiers, we’re not going to turn it back to the birthers, without the biggest fight of their lives.”

Frankly, I felt a little like one of those “hellfire and damnation” preachers many of my readers frown upon. But what is important is not the style – it’s the substance. At one point, I mentioned that House Speaker John Boehner cries a lot, noting that “since this is the 21st century, it is okay for men to cry; they just better be crying about the right things.” Mr. Boehner, of course, is not.

The very next day our active Delaware Valley Chapter of Americans United hosted a full-day event at the Constitution Center in downtown Philadelphia. There were a lot of excellent academic presentations – including at least one using Powerpoint, a horrifying tool I am more afraid of than a power saw – and my keynote address was sandwiched between them before lunch.

My presentation was called: “Separation of Church and State Isn’t Just About School Prayer Anymore – It’s About Everything.” This decidedly non-academic title, though, could accurately be the kind of thing a general speaker could use to justify topics ranging from the morning’s headlines (which it did) to obscure court cases he is obsessed with (like the trial of the “West Memphis Three”, defendants convicted of murder 16 years ago almost entirely on the basis of testimony by a mail order “expert” on “Satanic” crime).

When you are told to fill more than an hour you can even get playful. I actually brought a stuffed animal – to make a point, of course, not for personal comfort.

About a week later, I was asked to join Washington, D.C.’s new mayor, Vincent Gray, at an elementary school not far from our office to decry the action of Congress and the Obama administration that forced the city to accept $100 million dollars to continue the D.C. school voucher program. City officials did not want the money, but if they didn’t take it, their public schools wouldn’t get a dime.

All this extra (and useless and unwanted) spending was part of a budget deal to cut federal spending. One wonders which schools teach that “cut” and “spend more” are synonymous terms. Here I had three minutes to explain to reporters how the voucher scheme violates constitutional values (no taxpayer funds for religion); vitiates civil rights laws (allowing sex and religious discrimination in the private schools getting the voucher money); and doesn’t improve academic performance or even student satisfaction about going to school.

What could I do but cock my head in the direction of the baseball stadium and say, “I can almost hear an umpire at Nationals Park calling, ‘Three strikes and you should be out.’”

Edited footage on cable TV, a nine-minute focused pep talk, an hour-long wide-ranging discourse or three-minute highly focused media-friendly talking points are all part of the life of any “communicator” at Americans United.

No matter the time allotted or the audience addressed, though, there is a never-to-be-forgotten message. It is the primacy of the First Amendment’s guarantee that government be rigorously neutral about matters of faith and religion – picking no winners and losers in the battle for the hearts and minds of Americans.

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