It all started with a truncated version of a quotation from James Dobson, the powerful founder of Focus on the Family.
A British journalist had claimed that Dobson had declared the “culture war” over and admitted that his side had lost. Whoa! That would be big news. However, upon closer examination, it turned out the writer had quoted only half of what Dobson told his staff members.
It’s true Dobson did say, “We tried to defend the unborn child, the dignity of the family, but it was a holding action…. Humanly speaking, we can say we have lost all those battles.”
That’s what the London Telegraph reported. The paper did not report what Dobson said next, which was: “God is in control and we are not going to give up now, right?” He later added, “I have been assured by the board and by many of you that we’re not going to cow, we’re not going to be discouraged.”
The original story developed legs in the blogosphere and on talk radio. I did a few interviews and then was asked to appear on Ed Schultz’s show on MSNBC.
Schultz started by asking me whether the “culture wars” were really over, the perfect segue for me to say “sadly, no” and to explain that the Religious Right had been declared deceased on at least four previous occasions. But “just like Freddie Krueger, they always come back to Elm Street whether we like it or not.”
Indeed, the Religious Right has a mountain of cash growing every day and no new ideas. This formula means that they are going back to poison the same wells over again: dumbing down science and health classes, censoring books, returning government-promoted prayer to every known public event and generally working to create a “Christian nation.”
The next day, Fox News called requesting my presence on an afternoon show to discuss several issues involving the Catholic Church’s intervention in political issues. I had a lively nine-minute debate with both the host and Fox “analyst” the Rev. Jonathan Morris, a Catholic priest.
We argued about whether the Vatican should be able to effectively veto the choice of U.S. ambassador, as it apparently had done with Caroline Kennedy. I noted that we shouldn’t even have an ambassador to a religious body and reminded the Fox viewers that the entire network would probably explode in outrage if a Muslim nation said it wouldn’t accept a Christian ambassador.
We also discussed why New York Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan should not threaten politicians who don’t vote against reproductive choice, with me noting that secular political officials are not supposed to be making decisions based on church teaching. Finally, we sparred over why in the world a minority of Catholics wanted to prevent President Barack Obama from speaking at this year’s graduation at Notre Dame University just because he is pro-choice and pro-stem cell research.
The cast of characters changes, but there is a persistence of an impulse by some in the religious community that since they and they alone see all truth, the rest of us must be compelled to live their way – by government fiat if necessary.
However, as several recent polls demonstrate, a shifting religious sentiment marks America today, with folks switching faiths or moving in and out of religion entirely. Today’s minority community could end up being much larger in the not too distant future and could even supplant today’s majority.
Sometimes even minority faiths seek special privileges. Michelle Malkin, a syndicated columnist who often makes Ann Coulter seem like Shirley Temple, discovered that the Hawaii Senate had recently passed a resolution declaring “Islam Day” and that only one legislator had voted against it on separation of church and state grounds.
Malkin railed, “Where is Barry Lynn?”
Not being everywhere in the nation at the same time, I’ll admit that I didn’t know this vote had occurred. But if Malkin had bothered to call me – AU’s number is in the book, and we take media calls at all times – I’d have been happy to give her the scoop that I indeed believe that this action, like national days of prayer, is a totally inappropriate legislative action.
Maybe she’ll call next time.
All of this is to say that the separation of church and state works only if we are consistent. No matter which group wants to curry special favor with government, which one wants everyone to put tax dollars into its collection plate, which desires to have its beliefs honored or promoted by the political powers, some of us will be there to say “no.”
When any group wants to turn a public school into a place for disseminating religion, whether called “creation science” or “Vedic science,” it is up to us separationists to cry foul and make it clear that we are looking at the intent of promoters, not the label they give to their activities.
As one of our Jewish members once put it, “We are equal-opportunity kvetches and are proud of it.”
Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.