Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

The Man Behind the War Against Religion

by Mark D. Tooley


A critique of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State and its executive director, Barry Lynn.

Larger Work


Publisher & Date

The Morley Institute, February 2001

If you believe the rhetoric of Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State since 1992, America in 2001 is like Iran in 1979, when the mullahs prepared to launch their reign of Islamic fundamentalist terror. Lynn and Americans United would have us believe that religious conservatives represent the greatest danger to tranquility and freedom since the Ayatollah Khomeini took over Tehran. Lynn, who is himself an ordained Protestant minister, believes that theocracy linked to a politically active Religious Right is one of American democracy’s biggest threats.

Lynn’s rhetoric is often just fund-raising–letter alarmism, suitably exaggerated to bring dollars to his organization. But his claim to be a champion of religious freedom gets quite a bit of play in the media, which seem to take his critiques of the Religious Right seriously. His searing condemnations of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson are widely quoted in the press. And his face is immediately recognizable to any regular viewer of the all-news stations. Lynn enjoys sparring with his ideological opponents. He served for two years as a regular cohost of Pat Buchanan and Company. He now cohosts, with Oliver North, a weekly radio program on the Mutual Broadcasting System called Review of the News.

Lynn’s apocalyptic warnings about a coming theocracy both infuriate and amuse his targets. He routinely portrays them as all-powerful and almost invincible. This is always news to culturally besieged religious conservatives, who are largely shut out of every institution of influence in America besides the ones they themselves have created: churches, church schools, and church-oriented publications. Lynn’s main target, the Christian Coalition, is widely perceived to be in decline, which must frustrate him. Since it is his chief critic, he will have to identify a new enemy to berate. (Lynn himself could not be reached for an interview, but a spokesman for Americans United says that some form of political activism from the Religious Right will continue to threaten the rights of nonbelievers and members of religious minorities.)

Lynn’s Own Agenda

Lynn gets great mileage out of portraying liberal cultural elites as persecuted underdogs and religious conservatives as their persecutors. His own agenda, however, rarely receives extensive scrutiny, although he does little to hide it. If we are to take his Lynn’s words seriously, he desires an America where the sensitive ears of nonbelievers are not assaulted by prayer in many public places, where tax dollars subsidize art that many religious people find offensive, where churches and synagogues face tight restrictions in order to keep their tax exemptions, where religious arguments against abortion are taboo, where politicians hesitate to mention God, where gays can marry each other and stigmatize opponents of same-sex marriage as bigots, and where people can do virtually everything they want to do, as long as they abide by restrictions on their ability to bring their traditional religious beliefs to the public square.

Americans United was founded 50 years ago by liberal Protestants and secularists opposed to government aid to Catholic institutions, especially parochial schools. Like many other organizations of its kind, it took an even more radical turn during the 1960s, adding abortion rights, gay rights, and a host of other liberal causes to its church-state concerns. Its traditional fear of Catholicism expanded to a fear of all traditional religion, with conservative Catholics and evangelicals as its chief bugaboos.

Before he took the helm at Americans United, Lynn had been a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) since 1984. Before that, he had attended Boston University’s seminary and was ordained a minister of the United Church of Christ (UCC). The most liberal of America’s mainline Protestant denominations, the UCC is perhaps the leading denominational advocate of gay and abortion rights. It has also been one of the fastest-imploding churches, having lost about 35 percent of its membership in 35 years. (From 1965 to 1999 the UCC declined from more than 2 million members to 1.4 million.) Lynn, after briefly pastoring a UCC church in New Hampshire and teaching at a Catholic high school in Boston, worked on the UCC’s staff from 1974 to 1980, including two years as legislative counsel for the church’s lobbying office in Washington, D.C. His political liberalism tends to mirror that of the UCC leadership. Lynn has explained that his life’s calling to Americans United really began in the late 1960s, when a college roommate’s girlfriend left the country to obtain an abortion. "And that was what triggered me worrying about what damage it does for our country’s fabric, to have religious decisions guide a country’s policy," he told the Washington Times in a September 2000 article. "That is not a good idea." Lynn told the writer of the article that he had "very, very traditional religious beliefs," his support for gay marriage and abortion rights notwithstanding. He lives quietly in Virginia with his wife and children, and his television and personal appearances show a man who is invariably good-natured. By most accounts, he has been a successful leader of Americans United, a $3.7 million organization with about 60,000 donors and a staff of 25 at its Washington headquarters.

It must be pointed out in all fairness that Lynn does not limit his outspoken critiques to religious conservatives. During the 2000 presidential campaign, he castigated Democratic vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, for talking about God during the campaign. Lieberman’s references to the deity were vague and nonsectarian, part of a call for America to "renew the dedication of our nation and ourselves to God and God’s purposes." But Lynn, in an August 29, 2000, letter, accused the Connecticut senator of potentially "contributing to a climate that does irreparable harm." Lynn, who also advertised his comments to Lieberman in a press release, expressed fear that "religious rhetoric in this campaign" might spin "dangerously out of control" if Lieberman persisted in his public references to God. "I urge you to accept the fact that enough is enough," he implored the senator.

In keeping with his record of opposition to religious expression at government-sanctioned events, Lynn was delighted when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June 2000 against public prayers at high school football games. "The Supreme Court made the right call. School-sponsored football prayer deserved to be sacked," Lynn exulted in his usual pithy press release-speak. Americans United had filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the high court to take a hard line against the prayers. In an earlier press release on the case, Lynn had written, "Public school officials should be teaching our children to respect religious differences" instead of trying to "bully" students into praying.

No Student-Led Prayer, Either

But respecting "religious differences" at school does not necessarily include respect for the views of conservative Christians. Lynn disapproves of Christian students who want to meet—on their own initiative—around flagpoles on public school grounds for morning prayer before classes. In a September 2000 news release he grudgingly admitted that such prayer is legal as long as school officials do not promote it. Nonetheless, he warned parents that such prayer events are typically "run by fundamentalists seeking to win converts," and hence, "some parents might prefer that their children not take part." Lynn also insisted that teachers and other school personnel should not participate in the prayers, although he did not explain why they should be prohibited from publicly praying outside working hours.

Although emphatic that the government may not subsidize Christianity, Lynn does not seem offended by government subsidies for art that many Christians would call blasphemous. When still with the ACLU, Lynn opposed federal legislation in l989 that would have prevented the National Endowment for the Arts from funding exhibits such as Andres Serrano’s notorious photograph of a crucifix in a jar of urine. In a January 3, 2000, news release, Americans United announced it had filed suit against New York City over Mayor Rudolf Giuliani’s objection to a dung-smeared painting of the Virgin Mary featured at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Giuliani was trying to cut the museum’s funding in protest. According to a brief Americans United filed in that lawsuit, this attempt at "censorship" of the arts would effectively "resurrect the anti-blasphemy laws" of bygone times.

Americans United professes to be devoted to the First Amendment’s religion cause: "Congress shall make no laws respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." But the organization’s interest is in fact limited to the language in the clause that bars the "establishment" of religion; it has almost no interest in the language protecting religion’s "free exercise." In 1993, John Stevens, an Americans United trustee, criticized his fellow board members for their lack of interest in freedom of religious expression. He noted that some of them responded to his criticism with groans. Stevens eventually resigned from the board, distraught because Americans United was supporting efforts to restrict the tax-exempt status of churches and other places of worship. His resignation letter concluded: "[A]mericans [U]nited’s interest in free exercise [of religion] is virtually non-existent."

Americans United also backed a Federal Communications Commission ruling in December 1999 that would have barred a religious television station in Pittsburgh from devoting more than 50 percent of its programming to "proselytizing." The station, before its purchase by a Christian group, had been a public broadcasting station. The FCC ruled that preaching and worship services were not "educational" and therefore did not meet the standards of the station’s original license as an educational broadcaster.

The FCC’s ruling ignited an uproar among religious broadcasters, who feared the agency would start applying the 50 percent rule universally. In January 2000, the FCC reversed its decision. But Lynn defended the original ruling, calling the proposed 50 percent limit "quite generous." Then Congress stepped in with a bill titled the Noncommercial Broadcasting Freedom of Expression Act that would bar the FCC from discriminating against religious broadcasting on the grounds that it is not educational. Not surprisingly, Lynn labeled this proposed legislation a "shameful" effort by congressional Republicans to "curry political support from the Religious Right" shortly before an election. "It’s outrageous that Congress is prepared to replace Bert and Ernie with Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell," he quipped in an October 2000 news release.

"Toxic" Religion

Lynn also opposed congressional legislation, offered in the wake of the 1999 Columbine High School slayings, that would permit prayers, Scripture readings, and religious music at memorial services in public school. It also specified that memorials erected at public schools could include religious symbols. The U.S. Senate had voted 85-13 to attach the proposal to a juvenile justice bill in May 1999. Lynn, however, maintained that religion had a potentially toxic effect on schools. In fact, in a May 19, 1999, press release, he speculated bizarrely that the Columbine killers had been "alienated" and gone berserk because they had felt ostracized by their more religiously observant fellow students. "We know from experience that school-sponsored religious displays and worship invariably make some students feel like second-class citizens," Lynn warned ominously.

Lynn wants to eliminate references to God from other public places besides schools. He doesn’t want the Ten Commandments to appear on government property. Naturally he opposes tuition vouchers that might involve religious institutions. He also fights against government support for religious hospitals or day-care centers if they remain faithful to their original religious identity.

Americans United joined the ACLU, the National Organization for Women (NOW), and Planned Parenthood in filing suit last year against the city of St. Petersburg, Florida, for renting space to a private hospital that refuses to conduct abortions. Bayfront Medical Center leases its space from the city government, and, although not religiously affiliated itself, it had joined a consortium of hospitals that were Catholic. In deference to its association with the consortium, it decided to abide by the Church’s abortion ban. The controversy over the lawsuit, however, persuaded Bayfront to cut its ties with the Catholic consortium—a victory for Lynn and his allies. "Public services should never be forced to conform to religious dictates," Lynn declared in an August 2000 news release.

Wiccan Worship

Lynn also would like Congress to fire its Christian chaplains. But he has spoken in defense of the right of Wiccans and other neopagans to worship on U.S. military bases. When a publication of the religiously conservative Family Research Council (FRC) complained about a Hindu priest’s having delivered an invocation before a joint session of Congress in September 2000, Americans United blasted the council for its religious "intolerance," attracting widespread media attention. An embarrassed FRC quickly disavowed the article. But sources at the council complained that the timing of Americans United’s critique seemed designed to deflect public attention away from another FRC article pointing out that Americans United had endorsed a gay film festival in Washington, D.C., that featured allegedly pornographic material. When an FRC reporter asked Lynn about his organization’s backing of "Reel Affirmations X" in October 2000, he responded, "We oftentimes lend support to organizations which have a constituency sympathetic to our goals and objectives." Those goals, he explained, consisted of opposition to the Religious Right’s agenda.

Loyal to his ACLU background, Lynn is an absolutist in his interpretation of the First Amendment’s free-speech guarantees, to the point of arguing that all pornography is constitutionally protected. As an ACLU lawyer in 1986, he even defended alleged child pornographers—although he himself personally opposes child pornography and says he worked behind the scenes to try to modify the ACLU position. In one of his ACLU lawsuits, he complained that a federal requirement that actors in pornographic films be over age 21 was a "paternalistic abridgement of the civil liberties of persons who are fully adult in virtually all other legal senses." He also argued that since there was no federal record-keeping requirements for family-friendly entertainment such as the movie Star Wars, the government could not make such a requirement for Hustler magazine or Debbie Does Dallas.

Two years later, while still with the ACLU, Lynn denounced a proposed federal ban on child pornography approved unanimously by the U.S. Senate. "No federal law grants more extreme powers to federal prosecutors to dictate the viewing, listening, and reading habits of Americans," he complained. In a 1991 television interview in St. Louis, Lynn confirmed that the ACLU would defend the "reproduction and distribution of sexual materials regardless of the actors’ age."

Defending "Sexual Minorities"

In 1986 Lynn told the U.S. attorney general’s Commission on Pornography that "sexual minorities," such as masochists, need access to "material that depicts or affirms their lifestyle [as] a means of self-affirmation." He further denounced the final report of that commission, which linked pornography to sexual crimes, as a "war on adult films and magazines." In 1987 the Playboy Foundation rewarded Lynn for these efforts with its Hugh Hefner First Amendment Award for challenging the "procedural and substantive flaws" in the commission’s report.

Lynn’s statements and press releases often sneer at believers. When the U.S. House of Representatives approved a resolution in the summer of 2000 supporting the display of the "In God We Trust" motto in federal buildings, Lynn cattily responded in a July 24 news release: "Having ‘In God We Trust’ over the Speaker’s chair didn’t keep Newt Gingrich from committing adultery." When, earlier, Falwell’s National Liberty Journal published an article, based on reports in the Washington Post and other mainstream media, that gay activists were claiming one of the "Teletubbies" as one of their own, Lynn pounced. A February 1999 news release from Lynn claimed that Falwell had tried to "out" a fictional children’s character. "Who’s Falwell going to out next, Winnie the Pooh?" Lynn sarcastically asked. "Or maybe, Barney; he’s purple you know."

Lynn’s lobs against televangelists are eagerly covered by news reporters looking for confirmation of their own stereotypes of religious conservatives. His opposition to even the most oblique forms of government cooperation with Catholic ministries is also accepted as merely an expression of his concern about church-state entanglement. Rarely if ever, however, do the media explore the underlying antireligious ideology of Americans United. Rarely do they ask the question: Are Lynn and Americans United less interested in church-state entwinement than in simply trying to discredit believers and dilute their public influence?

For example, Americans United’s Web site includes a link to a site ( that is harshly critical of the Promise Keepers organization. This evangelical Christian spiritual movement for men is carefully apolitical, emphasizing prayer and evangelism rather than public policy. But because it is theologically conservative and supported by some conservative religious activists, Americans United considers Promise Keepers a legitimate target.

According to the "Challenging the Promise Keepers" Web site, Promise Keepers is "setting up military-style ‘accountability groups’ that undermine the authority of local pastors," while "demanding that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons convert to heterosexuality." The fact that Americans United links to this site hints strongly that its goal is not to construct a high wall between church and state, as it claims, but to severely restrain conservative Christianity’s influence over public life.

Furthermore, in its 1999 annual report, Americans United noted that it has formed coalitions with an array of ultraliberal groups that, aside from the ACLU, have little formal involvement with church-state issues: NOW, Planned Parenthood, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, People for the American Way, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, the National Education Association, the American Humanist Association, and the NAACP.

Other organizations with which Americans United’s leaders have recently cooperated, its annual report indicates, include an almost amusing list of religious disbelievers, including a host of Unitarian Universalist affiliates, the New England Skeptical Society, the Council for Secular Humanism, the Atlanta Freethought Society, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, and the National Capital Area Skeptics.

Americans United’s board of trustees has in recent years included representatives of the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights, the National Education Association, the American Humanist Association, the ACLU, and the National Council of Churches. (Of course, for all its concern about church-state entanglement, Americans United is strangely quiet about the partisan jockeyings of liberal religious groups such as the National Council of Churches, which are reliable allies in Americans United’s efforts to counteract the influence of conservative Christians.)

The history of the last century has shown that rabid secularism, not theocracy, has been the main threat to democracy and freedom around the world. And since there have been few theocracies in the West in nearly three centuries, Americans do not really need to worry about potential ayatollahs. Our true source of worry should perhaps be the Barry Lynns, and the groups like Americans United, that wish to expunge all visible signs of religion from the public arena.

Americans United’s Attacks on Catholics

Next to evangelical Protestants, Catholics are the biggest concern on Americans United for Separation of Church and State’s agenda. This is not surprising, given that much of Americans United’s historical purposes was to combat what was feared to be growing Catholic influence in public life during the post-World War II period and the 1950s. Here are recent some examples of Americans United’s anti-Catholic skirmishes:

    In March 1999, Americans United urged members of Congress to block a proposal that would require the Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home to sell a parcel of land to the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., for use by the Catholic University of America. Executives for the Soldiers’ Home hoped to get a better price from private developers. But several Republican members of Congress, along with two District of Columbia council members, urged that the archdiocese be given the right to buy the land at a fair market price. This outraged Barry Lynn.
"This is a sweetheart deal," Lynn complained in a news release. He also warned it was a violation of the First Amendment ban on established religion because the government was playing "favorites among religions." He insisted that respect for the Constitution demanded that Congress drop the "scheme." Eventually, Congress reached a compromise that allowed the Soldiers’ Home to accept competitive bids while giving the archdiocese the right to make the first offer.

Elections interest Americans United far more than land sales. Catholic efforts to support pro-life candidates is of special concern. In March 1999, Americans United denounced plans by Anthony Cardinal Bevilacqua to distribute voter guides about municipal elections to churches in the archdiocese of Philadelphia. In a stern letter, Lynn warned the cardinal to cease and desist.

"Cardinal Bevilacqua, this entire scheme smacks of Christian Coalition-style tactics, and I am disappointed that the archdiocese would consider such an ill-conceived and legally dubious project," Lynn wrote. "It clearly jeopardizes the tax exemption of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and all of its parishes." He threatened to file a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service unless the cardinal followed his advice. "Cardinal Bevilacqua can choose to gamble with the Archdiocese’s tax exemption if he chooses, but I wouldn’t recommend it," Lynn declared in a March 1999 press release.

Threats about tax exemptions are a common Americans United tactic. In a July 2000 press release, Lynn warned of the "serious legal questions" raised by the Catholic antiabortion group Priests for Life and its issue advertisements geared to Election 2000. According to Americans United, the ads were designed to "pressure candidates to accept the anti-abortion position of the Roman Catholic bishops." Priests for Life’s executive director, Rev. Frank Pavone, had, according to Americans United, anointed George W. Bush as pro-life and condemned Al Gore as "an apostle for abortion."

"This is a tainted project," Lynn concluded about the group. "We will be watching closely and will not hesitate to report violations of the law to the IRS." Besides the legal questions, Lynn said he was troubled by the "divisive religious element" that Priests for Life was injecting into the campaign. "When churches try to force dogma on all Americans through the political process, it seriously undermines the separation of church and state," Lynn said.

A November 2000 article in Americans United’s magazine, Church and State, similarly warned of Catholic efforts to make abortion an issue in the 2000 election. The Priests for Life effort is "but one example of church intervention in the current election," the article said. It cited the anti-Gore statements of former U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican Raymond Flynn as another. The article also expressed concern about Archbishop Elden Curtiss of Omaha’s criticism of Democrats who support legalized abortion.

"The hierarchy’s efforts may prove futile," the article asserted. "Polls show that the majority of Catholics, like adherents of most other faiths, are pro-choice on abortion."

A small news item in the same issue of Church and State disapprovingly reported the attendance of U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Clarence Thomas and Anthony Kennedy at the annual Red Mass for lawyers at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington. Although the Mass is intended to "invoke God’s blessings and guidance," the article noted that "Roman Catholic prelates often use the religious ceremony to lobby court officials on issues such as abortion, parochial school aid, and church-state relations."

That Catholics should attempt to persuade anybody in government of the validity of their Church’s views is of course a very bad thing, in the eyes of Americans United. It prefers that religious people, especially traditional Catholics and evangelicals, keep their opinions to themselves.

Mark D. Tooley is a research associate at the Institute on Religion and Democracy.

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