Comedy And The Constitution

A Priest, A Rabbi And A Minister Walk Into A Bar…

Shortly after the 2010 election, I was invited to the offices of The Washington Post for a video interview with Sally Quinn, the editor of the paper’s “On Faith” website.

It went very well. In fact, Quinn invited me to join the website’s roster of panelists who answer a weekly question on religion and culture. I was happy to join many personal friends like C. Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance, and Tom Flynn, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism.

A recent question asked about “The Book of Mormon,” a popular musical on Broadway that could be described as a humorous take on that church’s adherents by people who aren’t members. Specifically, the question sought to determine the line between what’s humorous and what’s offensive when it comes to religion.

Now I haven’t seen the musical, in no small measure because some tickets are now going for $450 a seat. I’m quite sure that plenty of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints wouldn’t pay a nickel to see it because they are offended by the mere use of the name of one of their holy books in a comedic enterprise. It’s not very surprising when an issue that matters most to folks (like faith or resistance to it) causes people to be upset with ridicule.

But let’s take a step back. Some religion-themed jokes of yesteryear seem pretty over the top today. (I’m thinking of the spate of bawdy stories beginning with lines like, “A priest, a rabbi and a minster walk into a bar….”) Did they go too far? Some of those old jokes trade in stereotypes. That’s not funny to some people. If you get too involved in the dissection of anything, you can find something that is potentially insulting.

Luckily, we don’t have anti-blasphemy laws in America. So any decisions about “offending” someone are going to have to be made by speakers, including would-be comedians, themselves. We really do have to set our own standards and make our own ethical judgments.

I thought about this recently because I got into a tiff over what I thought was a humorous video Americans United posted on our Facebook page and on YouTube. It had to do with the ongoing squabble AU is having in Kentucky over what we see as the misuse of state tax resources to help subsidize a theme park focused on Noah’s Ark.

The main force behind the effort is Answers In Genesis, a religious entity led by Ken Ham. When I debated Ham earlier this year on CNN, he affirmed that his group is a ministry, that the park would present the claim that the earth is only 6,000 years old and that there were dinosaurs on the ark. Oh, there might have been unicorns too. Ham was a bit fuzzy about that.

The legal issue is whether a rebate of sales taxes constitutes funding of religion. But that’s kind of dry, so to help people understand the issue, I made a video featuring a toy ark, some plastic animals, some dinosaurs and a stuffed unicorn. I explained the problems government support of the project posed – mainly, it put the state in support of bad science and funding of a religious mission. (If you haven’t seen the video, you can view it here: au.org/barrymessage1)

The video was a hit on YouTube – and then the blowback began. First, the Rev. Tony Breeden of the group DefendingGenesis.org weighed in on why I am a “false” minister. He also did a point-by-point refutation of the video. He claimed the dimensions of my ark are “Biblically inaccurate” and also didn’t like my stuffed unicorn. Breeden did, however, encourage people to watch my video. The number of hits increased.

Ham also joined the fray. He complained that I had placed a “full blown adult sauropod” on my ark when everybody knows that “younger, smaller animals would make more sense.” He then spent a good bit of time attempting to explain why the tax rebate isn’t really a subsidy. Ham also linked to the video. This meant even more hits for me. (It’s closing in on 7,000 views as I write this – thanks, guys!)

I can hardly wait to see the reaction to my next video. We shot it just the other day, and it features me in a cowboy hat and bolo tie asking Texas Gov. Rick Perry to stop sponsoring a Christian prayer rally. I asked him, “Aren’t there ministers to do that in Texas?”

Now, to come full circle: Yes, some jabs at religion go too far. I’ve heard anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim “jokes” that are not even remotely amusing. More gentle forms of humor can enable us to chuckle at ourselves and reflect on how others view our deepest beliefs.

And some things simply cry out for parody. Unicorns on a state-supported Noah’s Ark? That’s one of them. I don’t apologize for using humor to get people’s attention on a matter like this.

At the end of the day, we’re looking at yet another attempt to assail the church-state wall by giving government support to a fundamentalist Christian enterprise. Unfortunately, there’s nothing funny about that.

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