The religious right isn't going away: Why proclamations of its decline are a dangerous myth

Religous conservatives aren't going quietly into the night, Americans United's Barry Lynn tells Salon

By Elias Isquith

Published August 15, 2015 10:30AM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Mike Blake)
(Reuters/Mike Blake)

Because non-politicians like Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson have garnered the most attention during the GOP presidential primary thus far, another distinctive feature of this cycle's batch of candidates has gone relatively unnoticed. For all the talk and hype about the GOP modernizing and learning the lessons of the George W. Bush era — and for all the breathless speculation about the millennial generation and how it demands of politicians a different approach — the religious right's presence within the party remains formidable. The aforementioned Carson, for example, is in the habit of crediting God as inspiration for his tax reform proposals. And if he's not explaining public policy through religion, competitors like Rick Santorum or Mike Huckabee can be relied on to step in for him.

The unbroken influence of the religious right over one of America's two major political parties is just one of the many reasons why "God & Government: Twenty-Five Years of Fighting for Equality, Secularism, and Freedom of Conscience," the latest book from the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, is so valuable. For a quarter-decade, Lynn has been struggling with the forces that propel figures like Huckabee to the national stage and allow them to come so close to the reins of power. And while the recent, epochal successes of the gay rights movement, as well as the continued ascendance of pop feminism, may lead you to think that Mike Huckabee's America is coming to an end, Lynn reminds us that keeping religious fundamentalism out of public policy requires constant vigilance.

Recently, Salon spoke over the phone with Lynn about his work, the recent Supreme Court rulings on religious liberty and marriage equality, and why it's a mistake to laugh off people like Santorum and Huckabee, regardless of how silly they may seem. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.

In the book's introduction, you say you're optimistic about the country's future regarding the separation of church and state. But you also say vigilance will be required to make sure the gains of the last two generations or so are not lost. What would it mean to "lose" in this sense?

One of the way you lose is if you're not vigilant about the issues that are essentially over as a matter of judicial inquiry.

Prayer in schools, for example, is virtually on no one's radar anymore — except we find case after case where individual schools or school districts are trying to evade what is essentially settled law. Similarly, creationism and its white-coated friend "intelligent design" have been to court over and over again, even though it's pretty much a resolved legal question.

The other way we could lose big is if certain practices that are completely inconsistent with the separation of church and state become seen as routine or normative.

Such as?

Funding ministries, for example, used to be unthinkable; even in the 1930s and '40s, governments did not believe they should pay for religious schools or hunger programs held in churches. But today, seven years into the Obama administration — and with two full terms of George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism" — we find it routine for organizations that are religious to believe they deserve government funding and that they deserve to have taxpayers pay for all of the things that they can't convince their own members to support voluntarily.

Another that's become routine is the endorsement of candidates from the pulpit. Even the late Jerry Falwell used to say, Do not talk about politics from the pulpit. Then, of course, Jerry got a better offer — to run the Moral Majority — and he became obsessed with the idea of gaining political power. But now, thanks to the inaction of the Obama administration, there are no complaints being followed up about deliberate and obvious and over-the-line endorsements and opposition to candidates by religious institutions.

Why do you think the Obama administration has been so hands-off?

I think the administration is very nervous about religion, perhaps because of the large percentage of people who believe that a) Obama is secretly a Muslim; and b) that ought to matter. Also, I believe that he has been convinced by people on his staff as well as outside organizations that he cannot do anything that will be perceived as anti-religion.

This president has been falsely accused of being anti-religion so many times that it's become a pattern; and were he to do one thing he promised to do during his first campaign — and has still not followed-up on — [which is to] stop permitting the hiring of people, with government money, in religiously related programs, on the basis of religion.

That's currently ongoing?

What the Catholic Conference and big charities like World Vision have essentially said is, We must be able to hire people like ourselves to do this work. Well, some of us think that if it's so important for that thing to happen, why don't [these groups] use their own money to find people who are just like yourself?

Comfort level is not a constitutional criterion. We have heard this over and over again: We don't mind eating with African-Americans, said white people in the South in the '50s, but we just don't feel comfortable if they're next to us at the lunch counter. When there was an effort to bring men on as flight attendants in the '70s, there were airlines who said, Men, our principal business travelers, feel more comfortable being served by women in skirts. All that kind of thinking should be rejected when it comes to hiring, with government money, for religious institutions.

Would you extend your criticism of the administration's timidity to the progressive community in general?

I think the progressive community cares about the separation of church and state. But sometimes progressives look at religion too narrowly. I have to say, though, that in the last couple of years, they've been seeing it in a broader context. And not only regarding reproductive justice or the Hobby Lobby ruling.

Speaking of Hobby Lobby and the Supreme Court, which ruling do you think will be seen as more significant? That one or Obgerfell?

Well, the most significant in a positive way was, of course, the marriage equality ruling because it finally announced as a fundamental right that people have a right to be married to the person they love, even if that person is of the same gender.

Hobby Lobby, to me, was a disgraceful case. One of the worst rulings in modern history. Because to define as exercise of religion the kind of conduct that Hobby Lobby was engaged in — and therefore to consider that it was "protected" religious activity under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act — was unthinkable during the discussion [surrounding] the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

How so?

I played a role in writing [that bill] and never, never was there a discussion during that whole debate about whether corporations would be covered. It was never mentioned. People on the right, like Sen. Orrin Hatch, and people on the left, like Sen. Edward Kennedy, would never have agreed to co-sponsor a bill — and have all this marvelous, "Kumbaya" combination of [left-wing and right-wing] organizations — if people had ... mentioned anything outside of Muslim firefighters being allowed to grow a beard, prisoners being allowed to grow their hair longer than some states insist because he's Native American, etc.

So [the ruling] was a big stretch into a principle that remains problematic, and that is, if you claim a religious objection to a law you don't like, even if you're a corporation, you have a colorable claim that you will be exempt from the law as it applies to everyone else.

Do you worry that the Hobby Lobby ruling wasn't a big, long-sought victory for the religious right so much as the start of a more sweeping effort?

Yeah. The only things we learned from Hobby Lobby that you can't use the practice of religion as an excuse for are: race discrimination and not paying your taxes. And, believe me, in the past, religious arguments were made against both. But in regard to any LGBTQ issues or other matters, Hobby Lobby was silent.

As I noted at the beginning of our chat, you say in the book that you're optimistic about the future. Does that optimism extend to the future of the Republican Party? What I mean is, some observers think the power of the religious right within the GOP is waning. Do you?

No, I don't. I think the religious right is just about as strong now as it was during Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority.

In polling, it looks like about 21 percent of the electorate considers itself to be part of the religious right; that's bad news; that's the biggest pressure group in the country. It dwarfs union votes or the votes of any other identifiable group. The good news is, when you break [those numbers] down further, the beliefs of millennials — including evangelical millennials — you find that they have a very different view of these social issues and of church/state separation issues from their fathers' or their grandfathers'.

But the millennial vote in 2014 was pathetic. So there's something fundamentally wrong — a disconnect that has to be corrected in order to gain the optimism that I guardedly have. But the fact that these [religious right] folks appear to be silly doesn't mean they have lost their power. And to those who think they have lost their power, I recommend that they go to one of the big religious right conferences (which I go to almost every year) and listen to what is being said and watch the reaction of those people — 21 percent of the electorate — when a Sen. Ted Cruz says he's going to bring prayer back to public schools.

Your point about the silliness being a distraction reminds me of Mike Huckabee, who recently hinted that he'd use the FBI to shut down Planned Parenthood. People laughed; but he wasn't kidding. And he's a popular guy right now in the Republican Party.

Mike Huckabee is a popular guy, and he's particularly dangerous because he has views like that and believes the civil law of the country can be trumped by religious doctrine, as he understands it. And he's not alone in that. If you had a debate between him and Rick Santorum, Santorum would say the same thing; he'd say, Law is one thing but God's law is more important — which we hear a lot from [radicals] in Islamic states as well.

So they are silly statements, but that shouldn't delude people into thinking there isn't something behind them and there isn't a large number of people who don't think it's funny at all. They think it's the right answer finally being spoken by major political candidates. That's what's frightening.

Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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