How I Became An ‘Irritant To The Status Quo’

A Personal Reflection

What’s better than being labeled a national “irritant” by your foes? Being recognized as one by your friends!

I had this honor recently when I was privileged to receive the Robert O. Cooper Peace and Justice Fellowship Award at Southern Methodist University. SMU Chaplain William Finnin told the news media that the award, named for a former chaplain at the Dallas school, is for people who put themselves in such a “position to the reigning power that makes them irritants to the status quo.”

In light of that, here’s an update on some of my irritating activity over the past few weeks. I’ll start with a powerful group that’s easy to irritate Tony Perkins and the Family Research Council (FRC). During the course of the Harriet Miers nomination, it became known that White House strategist Karl Rove had called FRC board member James Dobson to assure the Colorado Springs Religious Right honcho that Miers is a conservative evangelical who goes to a pro-life church.

I pointed out in the press that this use of religion to sell a Supreme Court nominee is the latest example of a religious litmus test articulated by President George W. Bush back in 2002 when he said he would only propose judicial nominees who “believe our rights come from God.”

Perkins took umbrage and sent out an e-mail with a rather unflattering photo of me. He noted that Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that we are “endowed by [our] Creator with certain inalienable rights.” Queried Perkins: “Better watch that one, Mr. Lynn. Can you impeach a dead President?”

That’s cute. However, Jefferson’s Creator was not viewed as a force meddling in American politics even in the late 1700s. Moreover, given his life-long commitment to separation of church and state, Jefferson would never have supported the idea of a “religious test” for public office. Perkins is desperately trying to shift attention away from the utter hypocrisy of the Religious Right, which demanded that even speculation of how John G. Roberts’ religion might affect his judging be off the table but now stands idly by while the administration sells Miers by highlighting where she goes to church.

I have also irritated Franklin Graham recently. Speaking at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, Graham gave a combination meteorological/theological assessment of Hurricane Katrina. He blamed New Orleans for engaging in “satanic worship” and “sexual perversion” and asserted, “God is going to use that storm to bring revival.”

Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse charity is in the area putting up roofs and giving children evangelistic tracts and stuffed lambs that play “Jesus Loves Me.” Just days earlier, I had criticized the Federal Emergency Management Agency for having such unclear reimbursement guidelines for houses of worship that the government could end up funding evangelism. Basically, I was calling for accountability and the preservation of civil rights rather than just dumping tax dollars into collection plates.

Graham denounced my modest proposal as “ridiculous,” and the product of forces that “hate God.” All this bluster and name calling could be a cover for Graham who perhaps hopes that nobody notices that he has received a cool $15.6 million in federal funds since 2001, yet claims all relief efforts should have as their “primary purpose” to “share the redeeming love of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Finally, I have irritated Florida Gov. Jeb Bush again. He chose C.S. Lewis’ novel The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for a statewide reading contest. Kids are supposed to read the book and submit essays, artwork and videos about it in an effort to win prizes.

The problem is, everyone acknowledges that this book is a thinly veiled allegory of Christianity’s core concepts. Aslan the lion is a Christ-like figure, who is killed by evil forces and rises again. Lewis hoped the series would make it easier for children to accept Christianity, remarking, “I am aiming at a sort of pre-baptism of the child’s imagination.”

I realize not everyone who reads the book sees the Christian connection, but I can’t believe Jeb doesn’t. Here is a man who simply doesn’t appreciate the separation of church and state and who wants everything from faith-based prisons to faith-based child welfare programs and faith-based vouchers to subsidize religious schools. We asked the governor to use better judgment in the future and to add non-religious books to the contest this year so all Florida children can participate.

So far, the governor’s office has refused to address the religion issue, commenting only that the Lewis book is a “classic story of good versus evil.” (And one Christian talk show host told me Lewis’ book couldn’t be promoting the Gospels because it contains “animals that talk.” Right.)

Sometimes one has to disturb even our usual allies. When AU got word recently that some senators who normally support church-state separation were backing a measure that would give religious school vouchers to displaced hurricane victims, I spoke out. Our protest, picked up by the media, helped stall the bill, which had been on a fast track.

“Irritant” can be a strong word. But the simple fact is that sometimes some powerful people need to be irritated. They might need to be prodded to action or reminded that their views don’t square with the Constitution.

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