Confronting 'moral myopia'

Confronting 'moral myopia'

September 30, 2004
Written by Staff Reports

Sam Felder | Americans United for Separation of Church and State photo.
Barry Lynn: His is a recognizable, often controversial, public persona—and he's UCC

Everything the Rev. Barry Lynn needed to know about life, he learned in Sunday School.

That should surprise Lynn's critics who warn that the goal of the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State is a "godless America."

Lynn, an ordained UCC minister, attended Sunday School at Bethel UCC in his native Bethlehem, Pa. That's where he learned about the Heifer Project, Goats for Ghana, and "a world out there that we had responsibility for"—a responsibility he has felt keenly ever since.

When Lynn was completing his ministerial studies at Boston University School of Theology in the early 1970s, he never imagined that he would become a famous—and, to some, infamous—civil liberties attorney whose work for Americans United and the American Civil Liberties Union now makes him the bane of the religious right.

Arguably, he's become one of the UCC's most recognizable—and controversial—personalities to appear on the circuit of cable television news talk programs.

"I fully expected that I would be a minister in a local pastorate with special emphasis on pastoral counseling," Lynn says from his office in Washington, D.C.

"From the time I was in high school in the 1960s, I was profoundly moved by the fact that the church, and the UCC in particular, had been actively involved in racial justice and peace in Vietnam," he says. "No other profession—not even the legal profession which was something that did tempt me—seemed to be on the cutting edge of the moral issues of the day."

It was during his pastoral counseling training, however, that Lynn began seriously considering a law degree.

"Ironically, in doing some pastoral counseling work, I came to realize that when people need pastoral help, it is not just theological and personal advice and counsel that they need but also some very practical information as well," he says.

His "eureka" moment occurred in the long-term care unit of Massachusetts General Hospital where he completed his clinical pastoral education.

His supervisor told him that a woman, who was physically able to go home, had become dependent upon the hospital and didn't want to leave.

"I went in to talk to her with that mind-set. Finally, in the fourth or fifth week, when we were really starting to talk, I asked her, ÔWhy are you still in the hospital?'"

The patient told Lynn that her apartment was on the fourth floor of her building and that if she called a taxi, no cab driver would carry her suitcases up three flights of stairs.

"She needed somebody to say we can get the system to work so you can get your bags up the stairs. É Sometimes what people need is a way to understand the system and not just a way to understand themselves," he says.

Law school beckoned when his wife, Joann, a physician, began her internship and residency at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C. Lynn talked his way into an internship that had opened up at what was then the UCC's Center for Social Action. During the day, he worked with Vietnam veterans and sought amnesty for war resisters. At night, he studied law at Georgetown University Law Center. The internship eventually led to a fulltime position with the national staff of the UCC, and he earned his law degree in 1979. For two years, he was legislative counsel for the UCC's former Office for Church in Society.

When his daughter, Christina, now 26, was born, he took what he described as a break—editing a magazine half-time for about a year and a half before taking on another big job as a lobbyist on first amendment issues for the ACLU.

As legislative counsel for the Washington office of the ACLU from 1984 until 1991, Lynn became alarmed at "the moral myopia of the so-called religious right" and their apparent desire to turn their religious beliefs into the law of the land.

"I came to realize that they posed a threat to true religious freedom for the believer and the nonbeliever. They want to turn America into a theocracy along their narrow religious lines," he says.

Life changed again when his son, Nick, now a junior at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, studying artificial intelligence, developed a rare form of muscle cancer at the age of 4.

"It was a stunning, all encompassing event in Joann's and my life," Lynn says. Seeking calm, the family moved briefly to New England—until Americans United called Lynn back to Washington in October of 1992.

In interviews and Internet chat rooms, the question often arises as to how someone with "Reverend" in front of his name can lead an organization that some perceive to be comprised only of nonbelievers.

"We did a member survey a couple of years ago and found out that about 20 percent of our members are nonbelievers or free thinkers," Lynn says, pointing out that Americans United is largely comprised of religious persons, including many Roman Catholics and evangelical Christians.

"The day that nonbelievers become second-class citizens, we will have to worry when the next disfavored faith will lose their right to be 100 percent safe," he says.

It isn't easy being Barry Lynn. He has been called a "ferret" and "a left-wing thug" by Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, respectively. There have been numerous death threats. Members of the religious right have organized imprecatory prayers against him.

When Lynn worked for the ACLU, strangers would call his home and vilify him to his young children.

"I cannot fathom to this day how someone can write a letter to a total stranger and say not only do I hope you die but everyone associated with you," he says.

On the other hand, he has co-hosted radio shows with conservatives such as Pat Buchanan and Oliver North and appeared on "The O'Reilly Factor."

"When they get to know you, you may not change their hearts and minds, but they don't demonize you anymore," says Lynn, who has, however, received 250 hate e-mails after disagreeing with Bill O'Reilly on Fox News.

When the going gets rough, Lynn relies on a support system that includes his wife of 34 years, his children, and a network of people in and out of the church.

Equally concerned about issues of justice, Joann Lynn has focused her life's work on end-of- life care and the pressing need for changes in the health care system.

"It's a very different world that she works in, and that's part of what is good about our marriage," Lynn says. "It gives us a lot to talk about at the dinner table on the rare occasions when we're home for dinner."

Lynn still relies on the advice and counsel of friend and mentor, the Rev. Paul Kittlaus, who is now retired and lives in Claremont, Calif. Kittlaus was the one who offered Lynn his first internship in the UCC's national office.

"He gave me the single opportunity that opened the doors to everything I've done since," Lynn remembers.

Although leading the nation's premiere social policy organizations leaves little time for laid-back entertainment, Lynn still enjoys when he is able to escape the spotlight and go to the movies.

"That's one of my guilty pleasures, he says, "to go into a dark theater and sit there and not be able to be called by anybody."

But sometimes even the movies aren't safe.

A zealous communications director once tracked Lynn down in a darkened movie theater—just as the previews were starting to roll—to have him answer a call from The New York Times.

Lynn left the theater, located next door to the office in which he was working then, talked to the reporter, and then returned to his theater seat—just in time for the feature presentation.

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Sandra Hoy is a freelance writer who lives in Evansville, Ind.

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