Longtime Americans United for Separation of Church and State executive director, Rev. Barry W. Lynn, poses for a portrait outside the Supreme Court of the United States on Wednesday Nov. 08, 2017 in Washington, D.C. He retires this month. (Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Between the American president endorsing Christian nationalist Roy Moore for the U.S. Senate and next week’s Supreme Court hearing of a baker refusing on religious grounds to serve a gay couple, this might seem like a discouraging month for Rev. Barry Lynn to retire.

For the last quarter-century, the lanky pastor-lawyer has been one of the most omni-present faces of secularism, leading the advocacy group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. In thousands of appearances on national TV and radio, Lynn was paired with his culture warrior-counterparts on the right, once-towering figures like the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson – making the case that the mixing of religion and government is toxic and unconstitutional.

But Lynn, who retires Monday, said in an interview reflecting on his career, and on church-state issues in general, that he believes data and his experience paint an America becoming less tolerant of government-backed expressions of religion. “I think the courts are out of step. I think the president is out of step.” He has also been critical of President Obama for not doing more to further church-state separation.

In our talk in his D.C. office, Lynn reflected on the moments that transformed a young Barry Goldwater supporter who revered William F. Buckley – lions of conservativism – into one of the fiercest progressive advocates for church-state separation in Washington. And whether he, as a pastor who speaks often against individualism, feels empathy for religious conservatives, or wishes his tribe of political bedfellows were more religious.

Below are excerpts from our conversation, edited for clarity and length.

Q: The Supreme Court next week will hear a major case weighing equal rights with religious liberty. A Colorado baker says creating wedding cakes for same-sex couples violates his religious beliefs, and the Justice Department earlier this fall said his First Amendment rights were “invaded.” What do you think will happen?

A: I think there’s a very good chance our perspective will prevail. I hold out hope of defeating the claim because it’s such a sweeping argument about excluding people. It could affect not just gay people but we face the astonishing possibility of rewriting the principle that if you serve the public you must serve everybody. We can and should prevail.

Q: What about overall? If you had to say where things are at today, in terms of church-state separation, compared to when you took over at Americans United in 1992, where are they?

A: Overall things have advanced. I don’t believe this administration’s negative view will prevail very long because it’s inconsistent with what the American people want. They don’t believe government money should go to promote religion. Their hearts and minds are far, far moved from where they were 25 years ago…I think there is an enormous growth in tolerance…Once you make a certain amount of progress, you never get back to the same starting point. People have become more tolerant, more accepting.

It’s only a bad time because the Supreme Court looks to be at genuine risk of falling into the hands of a majority of so-called Originalists. I do this sermon called ‘The Two Worst Ways to Make Policy: Constitutional Originalism and Biblical Literalism.’ The Bible is a wonderful book, but it’s not an ethics textbook, that’s not how it was created. And Constitutional Originalism depends on the fiction that you can tell exactly what the first Congress meant when it passed the Bill of Rights. Most of that is lost to history.

Q: How did a pastor from small-town conservative Pennsylvania come to devote himself to church-state separation? 

A: It was the abortion question [When Lynn was in college, the girlfriend of a roommate of his became pregnant but could not obtain an abortion in the years before Roe v. Wade. Religious leaders and groups, particularly Catholic ones at the time, were the leading voices against abortion – as they are now.] I found it staggering that somebody had to go to England to get a safe abortion. How could I not know this? And what other powers did these powerful, wealthy churches have? That’s when I started to look seriously at this issue.

I also think of when I was in public schools in the early ‘60s, when one of the big Supreme Court cases [banning mandatory prayer in public schools] came. Before then, I remember asking my Jewish friend Dennis, one of the four of us who hung around: ‘How do you feel reading from the New Testament? You don’t even believe it.’ He was like: ‘What can you do?’ I was 15, and it was just very troubling. Very troubling.

Q: But you came from a pretty conservative part of the country [he grew up in Bethlehem, Pa.]

A: I remember in high school going to a debate between Buckley and [Socialist leader] Norman Thomas. I thought: Man, this is going to be fun! My Dad and I were big Buckley fans. I can still remember the feeling, sitting in the bleachers, thinking: ‘I think something life changing is happening’ to me. Buckley was talking about himself, and Thomas was talking about community, and how you have to take into account concerns of everyone, and I’m thinking: ‘This is kind of like what I learn about in Sunday school!’ Years later I was with Buckley and I said: ‘Your failure that night created me.’

I realized that night [that] this super-conservativism is just inconsistent with moral principles. Because you can’t live a life that doesn’t touch everybody else’s.

Q: When you talk about people affecting one another, is there some part of you, then, that feels empathy for someone like Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who became famous in 2015 when she bucked a court order to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, saying she was acting “under God’s authority”? That says: She is part of the community, too?

A: It’s possible for me to draw a line, though. I never liked the way people dealt with her, made fun of her, her appearance, various husbands. I do think a doctor who says: ‘I can’t perform an abortion’ – I understand that argument. When someone says: ‘I work in a hospital and schedule operations and refuse to schedule an abortion’ – I don’t have much sympathy. I’m sorry but that’s just not as connected to an action, it’s such an attenuated connection between what you won’t do and what you consider a sinful act. The baker thing – I have real difficulty finding some moral connection to those claims.

Q: But isn’t this all just about what kind of Christianity do people believe in? I assume you believe your ideas about morality should be spread, that your ideas are proper? You say you are motivated by what you learned in Sunday School. [Lynn was raised in the Evangelical and Reformed denomination, which later grew into the progressive United Church of Christ, in which he was ordained].

A: I think you’re right. I do try and measure my actions based on: ‘What is the pain this might cause someone else?’ If there is real pain there, this doesn’t feel like something I ought to do. I wish others would look at their Christianity through that same frame.

Q: As a pastor, are you sad your fellow separationist activists are often less religious?

A: I got an award at a humanists’ convention years ago, and someone stood up and said: ‘Barry, you seem like a smart guy! If you’re this smart, why are you stupid enough to believe in God?’ At another convention of atheists, I stood up and said: ‘There are a few differences between us. Obviously I believe in God, and you don’t believe there is any god. We’ll debate that for 2,000 years, but we have to protect the Constitution and we have 25 years to get that right.’

Q: You worked for one summer as a pastor, in New Hampshire. Did you consider being a regular pulpit pastor for a career?

A: I really wanted [initially] to be a pastoral counselor. I was doing an internship as a chaplain at Massachusetts General Hospital. I said: ‘I’d like to see someone who will be here for a while.’ [He tells the story of how he was connected with a woman who had broken her foot and didn’t want to leave the hospital for days. The chaplaincy staff thought she had a psychological problem. Lynn spoke to her more and realized the problem was the woman had no car or friends to help her get into a third floor walk-up.]

I realized maybe life’s issues are more pragmatic, and the law seems useful. Right away I got involved in this idea that if you can help one person, that’s good. But if you’re in a movement to help a lot of people, that’s pretty powerful too.

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