I spent several days in November and December traveling around the country giving speeches to promote my book Piety and Politics: The Right-Wing Assault on Religious Freedom.
I expect to be doing more of those appearances this year. It’s an auspicious time to be out and about with the Americans United faithful. This year marks our organization’s 60th anniversary, and during my travels, I’ve encountered people whose relationship with Americans United goes back many years.
I’ve yet to meet a founding member who showed me a 1947 membership card (although I suspect there’s at least one out there), but I have met people whose work with AU stretches back to the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.
Charles Sumner is a good example. Charles helped launch Americans United’s Nashville Chapter and currently serves as its president-emeritus. Prior to moving to Nashville when he retired, Charles was active in AU’s chapter in Rochester, N.Y., for many years.
In Houston, I met a woman who told me she joined Americans United at least 40 years ago. She’s not alone. At meetings and through e-mails and letters, I often hear from people who mention being AU members for four or five decades.
When I talk to long-time members, one thing strikes me: their perseverance. In 1947, many people were motivated to join Americans United over the issue of tax aid to religious schools. That year marked the first big push for parochial school aid in the modern era, and it alarmed many who supported church-state separation and public education. Sixty years later, we are still fighting that battle – albeit in different forms.
Others got involved in the early 1960s, when the Supreme Court issued its rulings on state-sponsored prayer in public schools. This is another issue we have never stopped fighting. Just a few years ago, AU had to go to the mat to defeat a school prayer amendment (misnamed the “Religious Freedom Amendment”), and we’ve seen a host of other issues grow up around that controversy. Creationism in all of its forms, including “intelligent design,” is an example.
Motivated by these issues and others, AU members signed up for the long haul and even after many decades show no signs of slowing down. They’ve seen us make progress on these issues but understand that the defense of church-state separation requires constant vigilance.
Long-time members often note with satisfaction that their involvement with Americans United puts them ahead of the curve. In 1947, no one could have anticipated the wide scope of religious diversity that would arise 60 years later. Yet by defending the church-state wall, these members helped bolster the protective barrier that made such diversity possible.
Sixty years ago, few would have believed that one day a powerful political movement would rise up that assaults the very idea of church-state separation, a movement that assails a fundamental principle of American life.
Church-state separation has always had its critics, of course, but in the past the debate tended to be about how high the church-state wall should be – not whether we should have a wall at all.
By time the Religious Right began to appear on the nation’s radar screen in the late 1970s, Americans United had already spent 30 years laying the historical groundwork in defense of the wall and marshalling legal experts to support it. The rise of the Religious Right was a unique challenge – but AU, thanks to the many years of activism by its members, was there to meet it.
What does that mean for us today? Essentially, we’ve already heard every argument the Religious Right makes against the wall. We’ve heard them, and we’ve refuted them. There is no need to reinvent the wheel or fret over being thrown a curve. Sixty years of research and activism – much of it done by people who are no longer with us – has given AU a solid platform on which we built our successes. It will also support the successes yet to come.
Those victories will be made possible by all sorts of AU members. Just to be clear, I appreciate each and every member of Americans United. In Nashville, I met a young man studying law and theology with a keen interest in our issues and organization. I was happy to see him – and not just because he is studying the same things I did in school. He brought several friends, and they represent a new generation of activists that AU is working hard to cultivate.
These newcomers join with our long-term members to create an anchor for our organization. The latter has much to teach the former. They know, for example, that our work does not decrease because of political changes in Washington. An organization that has been around since Harry Truman was president knows that administrations will come and go, and House and Senate leaders will come and go. One party will be up while the other is down. Our goal remains the same: to educate the American people about the importance of the church-state wall.
As I continue my travels this year, I hope you can attend an AU event and share your thoughts about our organization. I welcome your input – no matter if your membership card is dated 1947 or 2007.
Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.