In the last two weeks, conservative heavy hitters Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney and Michael Hayden have all spoken in Naples. But the liberals haven’t been sitting on their hands, completely idle either.
Last week, at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Naples, the Rev. Barry Lynn spoke to a packed house on the importance of keeping church and state separate. As a kick-off event in the local congregation’s Wednesday Night Lecture Series, the executive director of the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, ordained minister, author and lawyer spent more than an hour listing 10 areas where church and state are becoming dangerously intertwined.
“I like to give my talks in the form of a top 10 list,” joked Lynn, adding, “because the closer I get to 10, the sooner you know it’s going to be over.”
But Lynn also promised to not only deliver 10 bullet points of bad news, but to also bring some positive points into the fold. “I’m so tired of giving speeches that scare people, so I will try and give you some good news too.”
Number one on Lynn’s list was the current presidential race.
“It’s the first time in modern history that four people have said that God told them to run. Obviously, there’s some miscommunication there,” joked Lynn, and the crowd laughed.
But to Lynn the real problem isn’t that these men and women have all received messages from God about their potential to rule the country, it’s that they’re letting their religious views dictate their policy decisions.
“Recently, Ron Paul, who is the ‘Constitution Guy,’ said he gets all his policy positions from the bible. His tax, military and foreign policy decisions all come from the bible. His policy on abortion comes from the bible, which is weird because abortion isn’t even mentioned in the bible. But the point is, this is the ‘Constitutional Guy,’ yet clearly he’s getting his documents confused,” Lynn said. “We’re not supposed to be making decisions based on scripture, we’re supposed to be making them based on something else, the Constitution.”
Which led Lynn to his second bullet point.
“When one party seems to mix theology and law making, the other party tends to ratchet up their own theology. It’s a race to out-Jesus each other,” he said.
Lynn offered two examples that occurred in the week after Perry’s YouTube ad, which criticized the current administration for Obama’s “war on religion,” was released. First, the administration rejected the findings of the Food and Drug Administration when Kathleen Sebelius announced that the contraceptive Plan B would not be made available over-the-counter. The same week, an image was released by the head of Obama’s faith-based initiative, of the first family heading to church.
“Why was this photo appearing in everyone’s inbox?” asked Lynn, theorizing that as Perry ratcheted up his talk on religion, so too must Obama.
Lynn continued his speech by talking about the guarantee of government funding that many religious groups have become accustomed to, as well as the special rights and exemptions they enjoy (more than 200 by the latest count done by the New York Times).
Which brought him to his fifth topic for the evening, one of the longest running hot topics in the church-state debate: public schools. The discussion on faith permeating our public schools’ curriculum and prayer slowly trickling into assemblies, sports games and classrooms was especially timely due to the immanent passing of Senate Bill 98. The bill, which allows children to lead prayer or inspirational messages in public schools, specifies that the prayers must be from the students — and not from teachers or parents — but Lynn still isn’t buying it.
“There aren’t very many 5-year-olds I know who get up and give messages of inspiration on their own,” Lynn joked dryly.
But the reverend’s real concern, when it comes to schools, is the “trifecta of failure” he sees in school voucher programs.
Citing findings based on the Milwaukee public schools’ school choice program, Lynn said, “If most of the money is going into religious schools and we’re not seeing any improvement, it doesn’t work.”
But he offered this positive: “Public school programs are really in peril, but the good news is this, for the first time a public opinion poll showed that, by a small margin, more Americans now oppose school voucher programs. People know they are being scammed and they are being scammed.”
Lynn is not renowned for his ability to sugarcoat things.
He next touched on the problems of government funding for faith-based initiatives and the war on Christmas before circling back to another Florida issue, Amendment 8. Misleadingly called “the religious freedom amendment,” this item would allow the government of Florida to give taxpayer money to religious programs.
“It literally erases the separation of church and state promises set forth in our Constitution. It literally erases them,” railed Lynn. “The truth is, if you want to keep church and state separate in Florida, you better pay attention to this amendment.”
But again, Lynn offered some good news for supporters of separation of church and state.
“If they’re going to pass this, they better do it fast, because here’s the good news, their kids aren’t such fundamentalists. There’s a shift in opinion by young people. They’re going to college and discovering science for the first time and they’re turning to science. They have friends in the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community; the shift is dramatic.“
And Lynn offered these closing words, “And on our side, there are a lot of young people out there who want to continue to fight. People care about this issue. My recommendation is to make a commitment to be a nurturer to these young people and to make a commitment to learn something from them, because hopelessness is the absolute biggest challenge we have.”