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Why Churches Should Stay Out of Politics

Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, is an outspoken advocate of “keeping a distance.” He will be the Sabbath keynote speaker at the Adventist Forum Conference September 26 to 28 in Florida.
Spectrum asked Lynn about the meeting of faith and politics and how his beliefs have changed over time.
Question: Why is the separation of church and state important? What is the foundation underlying Americans United for Separation of Church and State?
Answer: I think it’s essential to maintain the integrity of both religious organizations and governments. Keeping a distance between the two is key.
True religion does not require the assistance of governments, and generally when governments touch religions they tend to degrade their authenticity. On the other hand, governments are not – or should not be – designed to resolve theological issues. That should be up to churches.
Question: The first amendment to the US Constitution states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Americans United seem more interested in the establishment clause, while churches tend to be more interested in the clause about freedom to worship. Do you think you and the churches are seeing eye to eye when it comes to separation of church and state issues, or are you looking past each other?
Answer: I don’t think you can have the free exercise of religion unless you have strict government neutrality on the question. If there is no decent distance between government and religion you will never have the freedom to worship in the way you want. There will always be a fight for government to impose the majority will on others, and governments are good at doing that if you give them the opportunity. The fact that these clauses are intertwined is what leads to real religious freedom.
Question: Churches in America work hard in their communities to help all kinds of people, whether homeless, single mothers, whatever. Do you think this should be the work of churches, or should the government take a more active role in helping the more vulnerable in society?
In this climate, churches play an enormously important role. But the society I would like to see would include a government more willing to step in and do what is necessary to help those who are without shelter, food, education and healthcare. Governments are set up for a reason: to promote the common good. That includes taking better care of all Americans than we do today.
Question: You are an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. How does your faith personally impact your politics?
My religious faith leads me into certain assumptions about the way a society ought to act, if it is acting in a just manner. But I never discuss candidates, and never endorse candidates, even in a personal capacity. Our organization does not do that.
We never object to anyone starting his or her own assessment of a candidate with moral values. However, in the US, we have to focus ultimately on the commonly shared values of the Constitution, and not our personal religious values, when making policy decisions in elected office.
You can vote for a person for any reason: what church they go to, even what shoe size they wear. But if that person is elected he or she must use the Constitution, and not personal, criteria to base decisions on.
Question: So how does your faith impact your work?
My faith helps me to understand both the breadth and the diversity of the American religious experience. And also the depth of feelings people have about their faith – or if they don’t have faith, the depth of their opposition to it.
It makes me able to understand that people sincerely believe a vast variety of things about religion and its place – if any – in our culture. I take people’s statements of faith seriously and I’m not quick to say: Oh well, he’s just saying that for political reasons.
I think both candidates for US president are committed Christians. Of course they have differences of opinion, but we don’t need to inquire any deeper into specific beliefs – they have made clear that they are Christians, and that’s it.
Question: Have your politics changed over time? You marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. when you were younger. Certainly he mixed religion and politics?
Dr. King mixed religion with politics in the broadest sense. He went back to the Constitution for what he wanted for the country. He gave a speech the day before he was assassinated. I can’t quote it verbatim, but he basically said that all he was asking was that America do what she wrote about. He was talking about the Constitution. He called us back to our common roots.
Dr. King’s rhetoric was Christian because he came out of that tradition, but he knew the basis the country was built on was its national documents, not religious ones. He never endorsed a political candidate, because he knew the pulpit was not the appropriate place for that.
And yes, my own politics have changed. I have become more politically progressive than I was, even in the 60s. I believe that we have an even greater responsibility to others than I might have thought 40 years ago.
At my ordination service in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in the church I grew up in, I asked for a specific hymn to be sung: “Once to Every Man and Nation.” The song was written on the occasion of the US war with Mexico. The idea is that there is one time and place where we all have to stand up for what we believe.
I have now come to believe that we have an enormous responsibility to make moral judgments constantly – that we always have to be open to new understandings. It’s too easy to think we just have to do it once, then can just breathe a sigh of relief and think: That’s over.
We have to adapt to new evidence, new experience, new understanding of Scripture (for those who are religious), and to demands of reasons and evidence presented to us from the natural order.

Question: You became the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State in 1992. What do you feel are Americans United greatest successes since then?
Institutionally we’ve become very well known for our advocacy of real religious freedom: separation of church and state as well as the right of individuals to practice religions that may not seem mainstream to other Americans.
I hope I have elevated the profile of the organization: Americans United employed nine people in 1992, and today we have 42. That includes a very, very aggressive legal staff that begins cases as well as files “friend of the court” briefs in cases filed by others.
Recently we won a major victory over government funding of a prison program in Iowa. The judge found that the state had basically set up an evangelical church in one wing of the prison, and that was not acceptable.
We had another case where a woman who was Wiccan was told she could not have a Wiccan symbol, a pentacle, on her husband’s grave after he was killed when his helicopter was shot down over Afghanistan. They had an approved list of 38 symbols, and the pentacle was not on it.
We represented her and other widows from previous wars. We finally had to sue the Veterans Administration, and they had to give in after many months and lots and lots of money. She won the right to have the symbol on the grave. They saw that they have to treat every religion the same, and not have a list of preferred religions.
Her case was particularly important because her husband had died to defend the principles of the Constitution, and then they were denied to him.
We have filed many complaints, and some high-profile successful complaints, against religious organizations who wanted to play politics when it is not their place to endorse or oppose candidates. Churches should stick to moral issues.
Our non-partisan campaign is to tell Democrats and Republicans not to use the church as a vehicle for endorsing or opposing candidates for public office. Not only does it run counter to the tax code, but it is a fundamental intrusion into the role of churches as spiritual places, and not political back rooms.
We get a lot of grief from people on both the right and the left for reporting religious activities that cross the line into partisan politics, but we continue to do it, and we have educated thousands and thousands of churches and led them away from handing out voter guides and other propaganda.
Our critics say we are frightening churches out of being political.
But we are just letting churches know what the law is, and that the law makes sense.
Question: So you are working on prevention – running an information campaign – as much as fighting legal battles?
We publish Church and State magazine 11 times a year, and we are a prominent voice in this area. I have a daily radio program called Culture Shocks, I do a blog with Jay Sekulow (the legal guy for Pat Robertson’s empire) on, I do a lot of radio and TV appearances, and hundreds of newspaper interviews every year to get out the message that separation is best for church and for state. It’s a win-win situation.
Question: What are the greatest failures of Americans United since you took the reins?
Our greatest failure would be a legal case we lost. We, along with many other groups, were challenging the constitutionality of school vouchers to religious schools in Cleveland, Ohio. The case went through the courts up to the Supreme Court, which ruled that under some circumstances vouchers could go to private religious schools.
At the time it was a defeat, but since then no state has been able to implement the new voucher system in a way that complies with the Supreme Court decision. So while we lost on principle, on state grounds the ruling has not been able to be enforced. States have clearer separation rules than on the federal level. Many states – including Florida, California and Massachusetts – say no religious schools can be funded from the state treasury. We utilize those state constitutions to protect rights lost at the federal level.
Question: How has the organization evolved during your tenure?
We’ve gotten a great deal more financial support from people who are aware of what we are doing, and want us to do it. The more support we get, the more the awareness grows. Some want to help, and some need help.
We work not only through litigation, but also just through writing letters. We tell people: We think you are doing something wrong. Knock it off, because it’s not right.
We get an astonishing 70% success rate just making people aware.
Lots of people just don’t understand that what they are doing is wrong. They are not bad or evil — they just don’t get it. So we just remind them of what the law is. They say: Thanks for telling us – we’ll stop.
Though I go on cable TV shows and yell at people, I am not antagonistic, and I would rather resolve issues nicely.
People see me on The O’Reilly Factor or CNN, and they think I have no sense of humor. I tell them I am not paid to be charming in shoutfests on television. But that’s not how I like to be in my personal life.

Question: How does Americans United fund its legal battles? Where do you get your funding?
The biggest percentage of our budget comes from independent contributors. Donations range from $10 dollars for a student membership up to six figures given to us to work on preservation of Constitutional ideals. We also get some support from foundations and organizations, but the great bulk comes from individuals who care about our mission and want to support it.
Some churches give us money, sometimes. We have a broad membership. A membership poll about four years ago found about two-thirds of our members identify with a religious group, while a third do not. We have members from every group imaginable: Catholics, Baptists, Adventist, Jews.
We have about 120,000 members, who pay a $25 yearly membership fee, unless they get the reduced student rate. With membership you get a magazine every month. People also use our website,
We have about 70 chapters around US, with lots of activity in places like Florida.

Question: Americans United says: “The single greatest threat to church-state separation in America is the religious right.” How would you characterize your relationship with the religious right, and with religious right leaders?
Our Constitutional view is very different from that of the religious right. They seek a kind of theocracy, or a government run along religious lines, while we believe the Constitution was never meant to promote such things in America.
When it comes to personalities, it is just like anything – you always get along with some people better than others. I had a very frosty relationship with the late Jerry Falwell. We had hundreds of debates, but never felt much of a personal connection. On the other hand I have met James Dobson and Pat Robertson many times and might even share a laugh with them. I have been invited three times to Pat Robertson’s Regent University; I judged a moot court competition there last year.
Of course we do have disagreements. Pat Robertson always says that I said “If a church is on fire, the government should not put it out.” I did not say that.
We know where we stand. I respect the fact that they are in an opposite place, and we don’t have to throw rocks through each other’s windows, but the freedom of the country is at stake, and that’s too important not to criticize their position.
Question: Have American politicians become more or less religious during the history of the United States?
I think the country, and that would include politicians, has become more religious. Yes, some people immigrated to America because of religious persecution, but a lot of the folks who came to the US originally came for the same reason as those who cross the river from Mexico: they wanted a better life and more opportunities.
I think people today think in a more nuanced way about religion and its role in public life. But politicians have learned it’s good to talk the generic “God talk” whether they understand it or not because people like to hear it. That’s unfortunate. You can’t listen to a speech in Washington without hearing “God bless America” at the end. Everybody says it, so everyone else thinks they need to say it too. It’s a cheap way to get the message across that “I’m a believer too.” If you walk the walk as a decent person, people notice, and you don’t have to repeat your beliefs every time you are asked to say anything.
I find it odd that we’ve had three forums on faith from presidential candidates so far in this campaign, most recently over the weekend at Saddleback. Meanwhile we have not had one forum on science, not one forum on healthcare issues or medicine, not one devoted just to economics. Presidents don’t have a religious function! This is a secular democracy – there is no religious role for presidents. We have other issues to discuss, and we are running out of months to do it.

Question: Do you see a shift in the religious right toward the centre, becoming less extreme, with organizations like Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church and Willow Creek?
The “religious right” is about 18% of the electorate, and has been since Ronald Reagan. The idea that there is this new huge number of evangelical Christians who didn’t vote for John Kerry or Al Gore, but might vote for Obama doesn’t seem realistic. I see no evidence that this group exists, but the Democratic party is certainly spending a lot of effort to find them.
I have been troubled for a long time about Republicans spending time reaching out to different religious groups, and now the Democrats are doing the same thing. Political parties reaching out to religious groups is a disturbing trend.
Most voters give candidates the benefit of the doubt. If they say “I am religious,” people don’t need to know exactly what they believe each verse in Leviticus means. There is no crying need for that level of detail on the part of the people.
But some political parties seem to think we are about to select the country’s next pastor instead of its next president.
Barry Lynn is the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, an organization dedicated to the preservation of the Constitution’s religious liberty provisions since 1947.
In addition to his work as a long-time activist and lawyer in the civil liberties field, Lynn is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ.

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