There is something humbling about being asked to speak to one million people. Just over 100 of us were asked to do just that, each for two minutes, by the organizers of the March for Women's Lives in Washington on April 25.
My task in the time allotted was to look at the role of Religious Right leaders in efforts to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision and their push to restrict birth control and education on human sexuality. Whatever the "anti-choice" movement may have been in other iterations, it is now almost exclusively an effort to impose a particular religious viewpoint on all of us.
On the march route from the Washington Monument to the U.S. Capitol there were several blocks of so-called "pro-life" demonstrators lining the streets; I did not see a single person waving a poster, screaming through a bullhorn or wearing a t-shirt who did not make it unequivocally clear that he or she was there to make a religious statement about what God wanted.
There seemed to be a nearly instinctive understanding of the roots of the anti-choice movement in that crowd. I was introduced about 11:30 a.m., following Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and folk singer Sonia (one of the few songwriters still writing very good and very political songs in the Woody Guthrie and Phil Ochs tradition). When the emcee just mentioned the name of our organization – Americans United for Separation of Church and State – there was thunderous applause for blocks. I thought about not saying anything so as not to dampen the moment, but that thought passed.
Here is the heart of what I did say: "The Religious Right is out there trying to collapse the wall of separation between church and state, to crush anyone who does not see the world the way it does. And, if they succeed, we will enter a Falwellian Dark Age where state-sponsored religion replaces responsible moral choice. We'll wake up to a nation where comprehensive sex education is censored, and we just pray that ignorance doesn't kill our children. Our country's laws could be based on Pat Robertson's messages from God, not based on the liberties secured by our Constitution.
"The Religious Right's leaders are the people who contemptibly proclaimed that pro-choice Americans caused the attacks of September 11. They are neither smart enough nor moral enough to dare impose their vision on all of America. On this Sunday morning, this is hallowed space. This is a place where every child is a wanted child. This is where every woman's moral choice trumps the will of politicians and TV preachers.
"This is where we honor the struggles of our mothers and promote the dreams of our daughters by committing ourselves to protecting women's lives – by protecting women's choices. In 2004, pessimism is death. Dr. Martin Luther King reminded us that 'the arc of change is long but it tends toward justice.' We will step off soon on this historic march to help guarantee that justice, once achieved, will never be rolled back. The only way we lose is if we quit. Will you be quitting?"
Needless to say, that final question was not treated rhetorically and there was a resounding "No" shouted back to the stage.
Nearly one out of every 290 Americans was on the Mall that day. People always ask, "Do young people care?" The evidence on April 25 was overwhelming. The intergenerational nature of this event was awe-inspiring. There was former Americans United trustee Sarah Weddington, who argued Roe v. Wade (and became the youngest person to successfully argue a case before the Supreme Court), and there was a young woman named Megan who told me that a five-minute speech I gave four years ago inspired her to go to law school so she could work to preserve the separation of church and state.
I met some inspiring figures. Susan Wicklund is a physician who had to fly between two Western states in order to provide the only available reproductive health services (and sometimes hide in the trunk of a car in order to safely get from the airport to a clinic). Another is Dr. Angel Foster who started a group called Medical Students for Choice.
So, this was a sadly necessary, but magnificent, day. I mentioned that you approach a speech to a million people with real humility. It is also true that there is tremendous excitement in completing such a presentation and sometimes even unexpected rewards for the effort.
After the march, I went to a little restaurant in Vienna, Va., to unwind and hear Eric Andersen, a songwriter I've been listening to since l963. I was alone at a prime table near the stage, and a family asked if they could join me.
"Of course," I said.
The father recognized me as an image from one of the giant TV screens that had been placed throughout the Mall. He asked me if I had addressed the march earlier.
I wasn't sure what to expect, but I said yes, I had been on the stage. I needn't have worried. He simply smiled and said, "Can I buy you a cup of coffee?"
Barry W. Lynn is the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.