© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Religion, not the economy, is dominating politics, speaker says

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 21, 2012 - In what he insists is a war on women waged by the religious right, Barry Lynn almost had a spot on the front lines.

The longtime head of Americans United for Separation of Church and State had been asked to be a witness at the congressional hearing last month on religious objections to including contraception in health insurance coverage under the new health-care law – the same issue that later featured the now-famous testimony of Sandra Fluke.

When Lynn realized he would be the only witness on one side against a much larger roster of witnesses against including contraception – and Fluke’s request to be added to the formal witness list had been denied -- he decided against appearing.

Fluke later gave her views to a panel of Democratic members of Congress, testimony that led Rush Limbaugh to brand her a "slut" and a "prostitute" – and also led to a huge backlash against the conservative talk show host.

At a speech Tuesday night at Washington University, Lynn – a lawyer and an ordained minister – said that the episode is a perfect example of how religion has encroached on public policy in a way that runs counter to the guarantees of the First Amendment.

He also described a severe shortage of members of Congress and others in public life willing to step up and oppose those who would use religion as a way to deprive others of their rights.

“We need to encourage more members not just to ultimately vote the right way but to take a leadership position and call things what they are,” Lynn said, citing former U.S. Sen. John C. Danforth as one politician who had done so in the past. “More of them need to remind people what is at stake.”

Lynn’s speech was co-sponsored by the Danforth Center on Religion & Politics and the university’s Assembly Series of lectures.

In an interview after the speech, Lynn noted that he had refused to testify at the congressional hearing because he could see he would just be used as a pawn in the larger effort by the right. “I could see it coming a mile away,” he said.

Another example of the right’s overreach, he added, was the view by GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum that John F. Kennedy’s well-known speech on how religion would influence his presidency had made him want to vomit.

“It was one of the most over the top things I have ever heard a politician say who wanted to be taken seriously,” Lynn said, adding that he views Santorum as “a true believer. I’ve never doubted that.”

Still, he said, “it’s not in the realm of political discourse to talk about throwing up.”

Lynn said that the two points that Kennedy made in his speech in 1960 – that he would take his orders from the constitution, not the church, and that members of the clergy should not endorse candidates from the pulpit – are the kinds of reasonable stances that respect the religious freedoms in the First Amendment, both the establishment clause and the free exercise clause.

In his talk, titled “It’s Religion, Stupid, not the Economy,” – Lynn said that because he has been mistaken for David Letterman – though the identity confusion more often involves Alan Alda or Steve Forbes – he would present a list of the top 10 reasons why religion, not the economy, is the major issue in politics today.

Here we go.

1. Some candidates think they are chosen by God.

Lynn said at least four contenders for the Republican presidential nomination have said they were told by God they should run.

“Now we know,” he added, “that it was a failure to communicate.” He said that God apparently told Mike Huckabee not to run but to remain a commentator on Fox.

2. The Bible, not the Constitution, is becoming the basis for federal law.

He cited one person who claimed the second commandment ensured the right to bear arms, showing how easy it is to confuse the Bill of Rights and biblical teaching. Saying that government shouldn’t pick favorites, in business or in religion, Lynn added:

“We aren’t supposed to be making policy decisions based on anyone’s interpretation of Holy Scripture. Are we electing a theologian in chief or a commander in chief?”

3. Democrats are working hard not to lag behind the GOP on “Jesus momentum.”

As evidence, he pointed to how the Department of Health and Human Services rejected scientific advice and decided to deny access to the Plan B contraceptive to women under the age of 17, what Lynn called “a huge victory for the religious right. This scientific-based administration rejected science and came up with a religious answer.”

4. Media outlets maintain there is a war on religion in America, specifically on Christianity.

In truth, Lynn said, there is a “dizzying level of religious freedom in America.” The only people who face problems are those who are members of minority religions, he added, or no religion at all.

5. Religious freedom has come to mean you can get tax money for ministries.

And then, Lynn said, you can ignore and violate all the laws you don’t agree with that still apply to everyone else.

As an example, he pointed to religious groups that wanted tax funds to help victims of sex trafficking but did not want to provide those victims with information on contraception. When such groups fail to get government funding, he added, it is like “complaining you didn’t get money for after-school tutoring once you have acknowledged that all of your tutors are illiterate.”

6. Tax-exempt churches want to take part in politicizing speech from the pulpit.

Lynn cited Santorum’s victory in Iowa as evidence of the influence of the ministers who endorsed him, though they mostly did it outside of their churches to avoid running afoul of the tax code.

“This is not about talking about political issues,” he said. “You can do that from the pulpit. But not endorsing a candidate is one small price you pay for getting the enormous benefit of a tax exemption.”

7. Talk about education has become biblical.

He said that no school voucher law has survived a challenge to it under a state constitution, calling such laws thinly disguised efforts to subsidize private religious groups.

Lynn also cited evidence that he said shows that school vouchers do not help boost academic achievement, as their supporters claim.

8. Politicians in both parties are becoming attached to faith-based institutions to do government-type work.

“We have always said that religious institutions should make it or break it on their own,” Lynn said. “We don’t subsidize them.” But now, he said, those groups are trying harder to get financing to do the work that used to be done by public institutions.

9. Politicians, including those in Missouri, are trying to remove constitutional protections that guarantee a strong separation of church and state.

Historically, he said, states have had the right to be more protective of religious liberty than the federal government, but now many politicians who generally are strong supporters of states rights want to undermine such protections.

10. Critics of the courts talk in near apocalyptic terms of the damage that judges do.

Since the Supreme Court banned government-sponsored prayer in public schools, Lynn said, federal judges have become a favorite target of politicians, and those attacks are increasing.

“The new mantra of the religious right is that we don’t have three co-equal branches of the federal government,” he said. “The courts are inferior.” He pointed to calls that Congress should be able to summon federal judges to challenge unpopular rulings.

At the end of his list, Lynn said his point was not to depress the audience but to make clear what was at stake and how important it is for people who oppose what he was talking about to step up and fight.

“The only way I’d be depressed is if you assume because all of these bad things are happening, you don’t have the power to do anything about it,” he said.

“The only way we’re going to lose with absolute certainty is if we give up our rights. We would lose the heart of the First Amendment at the same time. Do we win every time? No. But we lose every time that we give up before the fight is over.”

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.