Pat Robertson's Advice To Barry Lynn: Get A Life!

The truth must be told. I have to "get a life." I know this because Pat Robertson told me. Not only did he tell me, he told a large chunk of the Washington press corps at the same time.

During a recent news conference announcing his plan to spend $21 million to activate conservative Christian voters, Robertson answered questions about a variety of controversies. One reporter inquired about my letter to Virginia's governor, where I complained that perhaps Robertson should not be appointed to a state board on business growth while under investigation by the Virginia attorney general's office for diverting airplanes intended for medical mission work to a personal diamond mining business. The reporter asked him to explain what happened.

Robertson fumbled through some "explanation" about how he personally gave huge sums of money to the charity, and then cut loose with his pastoral advice for me: "I think this man with [Americans United for Separation of Church and State], his whole life depends on criticizing me. I just recommend he get a life!" A phalanx of Christian Coalition state directors sharing the stage with Robertson and members of his staff broke into wild applause.

I was there observing the event and happened to be sitting behind the reporter who had asked the question. A few other reporters who knew me looked over. I could just imagine them thinking, "The man with no life is right here in the room."

Many years ago, a U.S. senator from Virginia named Bill Scott was named as the "dumbest member of the Senate" by some watchdog group. He actually held a press conference to deny the charge, thus ensuring that the charge was spread even further. With this historical memory, I resisted any similar public defense.

Instead, I saved my defense for you. Don't tell Pat, but I do have a life. In fact, a big part of it is trying to protect basic constitutional rights for all Americans. Robertson is a thoroughly annoying, but well-financed, impediment to many of those rights, hence I am required to think about him often. I need to know what he is planning, and when I don't like what I learn, it's my job to criticize him. Call me a "constitutional stalker" if you must. If Robertson would stop his work toward making our country a theocracy I would quit paying attention to him and go fishing.

Robertson clearly has big plans for the next two years. Amidst a year of gaffes, personnel departures (even the Christian Coalition's President Don Hodel and second-best-known board member Ralph Reed abruptly quit) and membership problems (the doubling of membership promised two years ago ended up apparently as a net loss), he still seeks political relevance. Long-distance runners sometimes speak of "hitting the wall," referring to that part of a race where they will either collapse or gain a second wind. In my view, that's where the Coalition is.

They seek a scenario in which they elect an "approved candidate" for president (Robertson, in his own inimical fashion, explained that although the Coalition is non-partisan, every Republican who has indicated he or she might run would be "a lot more acceptable than Al Gore"), develop an ideological congressional majority and use the Senate to rubber stamp as many as 180 Coalition-blessed federal court nominations, including two or three anticipated for the U.S. Supreme Court in the next few years.

If all this happens, individual freedom and religious liberty victories at the high court (limited as they are already) will be a fleeting memory. Even court decisions like those recognizing -- not creating -- a high wall of separation between church and state or individual reproductive privacy would be in jeopardy.

Since the life I do have does not include any psychic abilities, I don't know with any certainty who the major parties will eventually nominate for president. I do hope that Robertson is not able to extract specific promises from any candidate to place ideologues on the bench. The independence of the judiciary is such a cornerstone of our constitutional system that it must not be compromised.

As one example, former President George Bush nominated David Souter to the Supreme Court. Although some argued that no Bush appointee could be anything but an ultraconservative zealot, they have been proven wrong. The eloquence and principled constitutional framework Justice Souter erects in his writings, particularly in the church-state arena, demonstrate a reverence for Jeffersonian principles.

I continue my travels and meet many of you with "lives" just about like mine. We hold widely diverse opinions on matters spiritual, but we are confident enough with them that we actually use suasion, not government sanction, to urge others to our views.

So Robertson thinks I should get a life?

Here's my advice to him: Try a new life yourself for a while. What sort of life? Well, maybe one like those led by many Americans United members. There are some rich rewards there. Drop the bigotry and intolerance. Expand your horizons. Learn to appreciate America's rich religious diversity and pluralism. Have the courage to question your own assumptions.

Go ahead, Pat, give it a try. And if you do, I promise I'll stop criticizing you in The Washington Post -- at least for a little while.

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.