You'd think it would be easy to get to Austin, Texas. It is, after all, the capital of the second largest state in the Union (and, I know, for Texans reading this, the sentence should end: the capital of the largest state in the contiguous United States).
But my "direct" flight to Austin from the nation's capital via Newark, N.J., was a seven-hour marathon with all the typical affronts we frequent fliers must endure: thunderstorms, tiny bags of peanuts posing as snacks and air traffic delays.
However, this gave me an opportunity to focus on an assignment I had been given before I left. Samantha Smoot, executive director of the Texas Freedom Network, had invited me to attend one of columnist Molly Ivins' fabled Austin parties. But there was a catch: Attendees were expected to compose a joke, limerick, song or poem about a specific political topic and deliver it before everyone else. For this party, the topic was Elian Gonzalez or Janet Reno.
I can't sing, most limericks are too risqu\xe9 for a minister and I tell amusing stories, not jokes. That left me with a poem. Since I'm supposed to be a Washington inside-the-Beltway guy, I thought, I can do Elian and Janet in one poem. If I had had eight hours, it would have been as long as "Beowulf." At seven and a half it had about six stanzas. It seemed to be a hit. And, no, you will never hear it. After all, this is a church-state magazine.
But I had a serious purpose in Austin. The Alliance of Baptists, a group that has not abandoned the historic Baptist support for separation of church and state, had assembled a fine panel on Saturday morning for a quick primer on the religious liberty guarantees of the First Amendment and their application in local communities in an increasingly multi-faith nation. Other panelists included Samantha, Welton Gaddy, head of the Interfaith Alliance, and Brent Walker, new head of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs.
It was a great event, with more than 300 attendees. I especially enjoyed the question-and-answer session afterwards and the opportunity to meet some long-time supporters and friends. Unfortunately, I couldn't stick around long afterwards.
Houston was my next stop of the day. The AU chapter there was celebrating its fifth anniversary, and founder Charlotte Coffelt had spent months getting ready for the big event. The celebration took place in the truly magnificent top floor dining room of the Warwick Hotel and drew an incredibly diverse group of sponsors, with tables bought by the West Houston Republicans, the River Oaks Democratic Women, the Log Cabin Republicans, Methodists for Religious Liberty and the National Council of Jewish Women. The event was so popular, in fact, that a few groups had to be turned away.
After my wonderful experiences in Austin and Houston, imagine my surprise a few days later when a U.S. congressman from Texas, Tom DeLay, told the National Press Club in Washington that he was looking forward to a new Congress where he could do battle with those trying to "replace core American traditions."
DeLay's uninformed screed warned of "a guerilla assault by a fashionable elite on our nation's founding principles." He decried the "morality of the cool" that supposedly teaches that "flag burning and nude dancing are protected speech, but prayer before a football game is not." It was standard Religious Right rhetoric, but DeLay left out one important point: I am unaware of any government anywhere sponsoring flag destroyers and strippers, but in the famous Texas football prayer case it is the government that is establishing and promoting the forum for prayer.
Nevertheless, DeLay's point was that a "new moral order" is coming because of voucher lawsuits and court decisions requiring the removal of sectarian symbols from state seals and schoolhouse walls. He warned darkly of "religion free zones." DeLay wants to change all this after the next election. During his remarks, he talked about "freedom" as if that means the majority gets to do what it wants and everybody else can just shut up.
Maybe DeLay ought to spend more time in his home state and meet the good, decent, hard-working teachers, lawyers, small business owners, pastors and homemakers I met. Perhaps then he would realize that if there really is a "culture war" raging in America, he's on the wrong side. The American tradition is to fight on the side of those who know that majoritarianism is tyranny and that real religious liberty does not require acts of Congress; it just requires that government leave religion alone.
Barry W. Lynn is the executive director of
Americans United for Separation of Church and State.