When I arrived in Manchester, N.H., on Jan. 14 to speak at a national convention of college students, I was struck by one of the sobering truths of that earliest primary state: It is really cold up there--as in two degrees, with a wind chill taking it to about 10 degrees below zero.
This led me to assume that students holding a gathering there must truly be committed to policy debates and electoral politics. After all, they were forgoing the warmer climes that could have attracted them on that long holiday weekend. (My own daughter, for example, was in Hawaii at the time. But she is doing her senior thesis at the University of California on why school vouchers are bad--so I will just assume she was thinking about that productively while snorkeling.)
Despite the bone-chilling temperatures, neither I nor the two other Americans United staff members who were there working our literature and membership table were disappointed by the turnout. That Friday, before my noon address, the l,000 or so students had been treated to rather lengthy discourses by presidential candidates Steve Forbes, Pat Buchanan, Bill Bradley, John McCain, and two other minor party candidates with "unique" solutions to the nation's ills. Even after that busy morning, most of the students stuck around to hear what I had to say, and for that I was grateful.
I did one of my "top ten" speeches. This is an idea I shamelessly stole from David Letterman's late-night talk show, which features a nightly list of ten reasons for some event. Mine was centered on "Top Ten Secrets of the Religious Right and Why They Ought to Worry You." This allowed me to insert contemporary cultural references into the speech to show what a "hip" guy I am.
To relate to this crowd even better, I pointed out that my attendance at the Christian Coalition's 1999 conference was chronicled in a recent article in Rolling Stone and that Americans United was recently singled out in Teen People. (What I didn't tell the students was that all of this occurred just about the same time the American Association of Retired People caught up with my 50th birthday a year late and started sending me Modern Maturity.)
Anyway, my first top ten secret was: "In this summer's big hit movie 'The Sixth Sense,' the little boy thinks he sees dead people and he really does; the Religious Right thinks it sees things that aren't really there--like sexual images in Disney cartoons and satanic horns on kids' Pokemon trading cards." You get the idea. In this speech, the "secrets" get more serious toward the end, and I wrap up with a pitch for why real religious liberty is a principle that should be viewed as a profoundly powerful idea by people of all political persuasions.
It seemed to click. Lots of students came up to me--many wearing political buttons supporting extremely conservative candidates--and said they found nothing to disagree with in my speech and hoped their own candidates would shift positions on separation of church and state.
AU grassroots organizer Beth Corbin and Nicole Lake from our legislative department got many other positive reactions at our table. The ideas in our literature seemed to be attractive to young people, many of whom do not wish to return to a time of intolerance in the past. They have through their life experiences so far developed a camaraderie that seems to discount differences in religion as some barrier to solving America's problems.
There were, of course, a handful of dissenters, including one obnoxious woman who told Nicole that she wasn't a real Christian because she belongs to the "wrong" denomination, and a few malcontents who made snide remarks about our "hidden agenda." (This frequently voiced claim confuses me because I have not been let in on what the "secret" agenda is, and I've been working here for over seven years). We were polite to everyone but did not spend a lot of time trying to argue with the close-minded.
I've said many times that the real determination of whether separation of church and state survives has more to do with what people feel in their hearts than what judges inscribe on paper. That's why we must do as much as possible to speak to new generations of opinion leaders and voters.
One young woman said she enjoyed my speech so much "because you spoke all the things I believe and know to be true." I accepted the compliment but added a challenge: "Good. Now don't forget that you can speak to a lot of people I'll never even see." We all need to "speak up" more.
Whether it's in your church's adult education class, the college cafeteria, or a casual chat in the grocery line, there's rarely a better time than "right now" to respond to misinformation about religious liberty. It can lead to conversations even more scintillating than ones on, say, the weather.
Barry W. Lynn is executive director of
Americans United for Separation of Church and State.