Barry Lynn, executive director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, explains how both political parties use religious politicking, how black liberation theology will haunt Obama into 2012 and why God doesn’t endorse candidates.
Rick Perry officially entered the presidential race this weekend. And, not surprisingly, the Texas governor used the occasion to stress his religious beliefs.
“I [know] that not everyone values life like we do in America, or the rights that are endowed to every human being by a loving God,” he said, echoing the Evangelical stance he took at the prayer event he organized last week, ‘The Response.’
Reverend Barry Lynn, executive Americans United for Separation of Church and State, was one of the most vocal opponents of that rally. He recently chatted with me about why God didn’t pick Rick Perry to run, how black liberation theology will again be used as an insult in 2012, and why he’s not holding his breath for an atheist president.
“We have a sad history of using religion for political purposes,” remarks Lynn. “Even during the revolution, people would say, ‘We need a constitution with divine intervention,’ and throughout history we’ve seen politicians use religion.”
Indeed: many of the Founding Fathers framed the revolutionary war in messianic rhetoric. Samuel Adams once remarked, “We have this day restored the Sovereign to whom alone men ought to be obedient. From the rising to the setting of the sun may His kingdom come.”
While Adams and his peers may have been God-fearing men, however, they were sure not to include religion in the Constitution, to insure that church and state were separate.
But that hasn’t stopped generations of public figures from wielding it like a weapon, paving the path for today’s socially conservative Republican Party, which relies largely on moralizing and Bible-thumping to court voters, as Perry proved last week at ‘The Response,’ an event Lynn called an example of unconstitutional, oxymoronic “governmental Evangelism.”
And Lynn also insists that the people Governor Perry invited to his rally, including the American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer, who blamed the Holocaust on gay people, can only be described as “fringe.”
“They don’t even speak for the majority of conservative Christians,” says Lynn.
That doesn’t mean, however, that any of the more rational Christians on the right are prepared to counter their kooky claims, like John Benefiel’s assertion that the Statue of Liberty is somehow demonic.
“Tony Perkins from [The Response's anti-gay co-sponsor] the Family Research Council said he didn’t agree with Fischer or Benefiel, but justified their work by saying they had an underlying association with Jesus,” Lynn explained. “If you think someone is wrong you should just say, ‘You are wrong.’ Those words are not always easy for the more mainstream Christian conservatives.”
But Lynn made sure to point out that FRC, a group that regularly campaigns against gay rights and abortion, does not qualify as “mainstream,” “I don’t think they are mainstream, but at least they’re not talking about demons in the Statue of Liberty.”
GOT GOD’S VOTE?
Even though Lynn himself is a man of faith — he’s a Georgetown-educated lawyer who’s also an ordained minister at the progressive United Church of Christ — he and his group firmly believe that the state and its representatives should say out of theological matters entirely. To that end, they regularly fight prayer programs at public schools, oppose erection of Ten Commandments monuments on state ground and counter events like Perry’s evangelical rally.
By hosting an explicitly Christian religious event, sitting Governor Perry violated the at-times sacred, and always contentious, separation of church and state. That’s because, in the Republican’s mind, the church and the state are almost indivisible.
“[Perry's] merging the two and trying to act like the job description for governor of Texas is find a way to bring everyone from San Antonio to Dallas to Jesus. That is not part of the job description,” Lynn said on MSNBC’s ‘Hardball’ earlier this month.
Of course most political observers aren’t surprised that Perry’s so forcefully using faith to achieve political ends. The governor did, after all, say that he was being “called” to the White House.
Michele Bachmann made a similar assertion — “I will not seek a higher office if God is not calling me to do it,” she said last year, before announcing her campaign — and so too did Rick Santorum, when he told Christian Broadcasting Network host David Brody, “[My family and I] have prayed a lot about this decision, and we believe with all our hearts that this is what God wants.”
Lynn chuckles at these celestial claims: “We have three people who said they were prayerfully told [to run], so at least two of them are listening to the wrong person.”
“This is bizarre to me — if you believe there’s an ongoing discussion between people and God, it’s usually not this blatant or political,” Lynn muses. “Most people don’t believe God is involved in people’s political action committees.”
It’s not just right-wingers like Perry, Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum who drag God into their political posturing, either. Democrats do it, too.
“OBAMA WANTS PEOPLE TO THINK HE’S CHRISTIAN:”
“Democrats and Republicans seem to always end speeches with ‘God Bless America,’ and if they don’t, people say, ‘Something’s missing,’” Lynn remarks, before noting that Obama also employs religion in his politics.
“Obama wants people to think he’s Christian.” Consider the persistent myth that the president is Muslim; even after all but the most ardently irrational people were over it, Obama made a point of stressing his Christian faith. “He didn’t need to keep repeating it,” says Lynn,” but that didn’t seem to stop him.”
The president also gave in to social conservative pressure during the “death panel” health care debate, notes Lynn. And Obama did the same when he established in February, 2009, the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, an even more expansive version of George W. Bush’s similar program.
And American voters can be sure to hear more about the president’s religion during the 2012 election cycle. While the Muslim myth has been largely — though not completely — debunked, the right is again latching onto the misused term “black liberation theology” to describe Obama’s political faith.
Sean Hannity, for example, asked Mitt Romney last week if Obama’s woes are because he’s “in over his dead” or because “he holds to that rigid ideology, black liberation theology, which is rooted in social justice and entitlement society.”
Black liberation theology is a diaspora of Christian movements that use Biblical text to argue for equality, historically in the context of colonial history. Conservatives seized on the term in 2007, after it was revealed that Obama’s former pastor, a liberation theologist named Jeremiah Wright, had used the pulpit to preach that, among other things, 9/11 was proof that “America’s chickens are coming home to roost.” Or, in layman’s terms, that the States deserved to get attacked that fateful day.
Lynn has no qualms criticizing Wright, whom he’s known for over two decades, but insists the preacher shouldn’t be used as an example for an entire movement: “Many of Wright’s claims are wrong, and should be criticized, but not at the cost of the entire movement.”
Still, Lynn admits, “black liberation theology is a scary term for some.”
Basically, people are confused by race and liberation, and when people hear, ‘black liberation theology,’ they think the “movement must be about killing people in South America.”
Though black liberation theology may scare some people on the right, it’s probably more palatable than another faith-minded movement, atheism.
ATHEIST FOR PRESIDENT?
Asked whether, considering the unbreakable bond between religion and politics, he thinks there will ever be an atheist president, Lynn replied, “Not in my life time. I’m not expecting to see one, because atheists have such a negative opinion in public opinion polls.”
Lynn is absolutely correct in describing the opposition as “overwhelming:” a 2006 University of Minnesota poll showed that 47.6% of Americans said they would disapprove of their child marrying an atheists. That’s over 14 points more than objection to a Muslim mate and over 20 points more than people who said they would object to their child marrying a person of a different race.
Meanwhile, 49% of the nation admit they would not vote for an atheist president in a 2011 Gallup Poll. And, as Lynn points out, there’s only one U.S. Congressman — California Rep. Pete Stark — who is an open atheist.
And in fact the odds are inherently stacked against atheists in Washington, because so many of today’s political issues exist because of right wing religious teachings. Gay marriage and abortion, for example. “Very few people are against [abortion and gay marriage] without religious motivation. You couldn’t have those movements without a religious argument.”
Just like Perry couldn’t have a presidential campaign without the tacit backing of the fringe characters like those he hosted last week. This means, of course, that Lynn and anyone else who believes in the separation of church and state have plenty of work ahead of them, because it appears the church and state debate could go on for all eternity.