Thursday, June 21, 2007

Rev. Barry Lynn's Liberal Silence

Rev. Barry Lynn, Executive Director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AU), has never been bashful speaking out against religious conservatives who allegedly use government cash to further their agendas. But ever since the liberal denomination that ordained him -- the United Church of Christ (UCC) -- willingly took $100,000 from the State of Connecticut to put on its General Synod in Hartford (taking place June 22-26, 2007), Lynn has been strangely quiet.

When churches and states get seemingly too cozy, Lynn is quick to protest. In May 2006, Lynn and the AU urged Maryland's Attorney General to deny a $150,000 grant given by the Maryland General Assembly for the June 2006 annual conference of the National Baptist Congress of Christian Education (NBCCE). Lynn complained in the AU press release, "This grant is totally inappropriate and clearly unconstitutional. Religious groups should pass the collection plate to their own members, not the taxpayers."

According to the AU, the Baptists' convention plans included worship services and instructional sessions taught by clergy. Thus, AU Assistant Legal Director Richard B. Katskee argued, “Although the NBCCE, as a private organization, is free to engage in that conduct, the State of Maryland is forbidden” by the U.S. Constitution to support it with public funds.

OK, if that's the AU's position, let's do a quick comparison.

The UCC's General Synod has the very same kind of activities planned. They're having worship services. They're having instructional sessions taught by clergy. The UCC is even hosting a speech by Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama! In short--and to use Katskee's words of complaint to Maryland about the Baptists--the UCC Synod, "will encourage proselytization in one faith..." And, it's all being done, in part, with a $100,000 grant from the State of Connecticut.

So why isn't Barry Lynn complaining?

This is the observation made by James Hutchins at UCCtruths:
Although Lynn prides himself as an independent arbiter of where the line between church and state meet, his silence on his own denomination’s encroachment on Jefferson’s wall of separation is not only hypocritical, it ultimately undermines his own mission.
The silence of Lynn is ever more curious since Connecticut's grant to the UCC is far more egregious legally than Maryland's assistance to the Baptists. After laying out the evidence, Hutchins summarizes:
The distinction between the Connecticut grant and the Maryland grant couldn’t be clearer. In the Maryland case, the grant was used to help ease the burden on public transportation. In the Connecticut case, the grant is being used to defray the cost of the facilities to host a clearly religious event for the United Church of Christ.
Responding on his blog to charges that he failed to speak out against the UCC-Connecticut $100,000 arrangement, Rev. Lynn states:

Since I am an ordained UCC minister, this issue was of great concern to me. I expressed those concerns to denominational officials, and I also asked AU’s Legal Department to research the matter. AU attorneys did extensive research. They found that government officials in Connecticut give discounts to any group that brings a large crowd to town. What’s offered is a rebate, not direct aid, and thus cannot be diverted to support religion. Our lawyers’ view was that the courts would not rule against this kind of aid...

To be clear, I disagree with court opinions that allow rebates and so-called “indirect” aid. AU opposes government subsidies to religious groups. Religious groups should pay for their own endeavors. But again, we did research the matter and acted according to the facts.

Rev. Lynn says he expressed concern to UCC officials. If so, it was done privately. Nearly a year has past since the grant was announced. Why hasn't Lynn said anything publicly? Why not put public pressure on the State of Connecticut and the UCC? The fact he'd oppose his own denomination would have given him the perception of increased integrity in the public's eye.

Lynn says he opposes rebates and other "indirect" aid. Again, if so, why hasn't he publicly scolded his own liberal denomination for grabbing state cash? Is Lynn's chiding only saved for religious organizations of more conservative persuasion? Lynn's tepid protest now on his blog--which comes only because his silence was given note--is hardly indicative of the bold person of strong conviction that we often see on television.

Lynn says AU attorneys did "extensive research." To put it kindly, Rev. Lynn and the AU's research was poor. Hutchins of UCCtruths makes this rebuttal at Lynn's blog:

Candidly, your response to the Connecticut grant is inaccurate. Can you (or AU lawyers) cite a single court precedence for religious "rebates"?

As you know, the constitutional criteria, is based on the religious effect of the aid. Whether its direct or indirect aid, the religious effect is clear - the Connecticut grant was used to offset the cost of the facility for religious purposes.

In effect, what you and your lawyers are conceding is that if state's play the shell game, they can ultimately direct aid to religious groups. Is that really the message you want to communicate?
It's also significant to note that the State of Connecticut gave the $100K only and after the UCC promised to take its General Synod to another state.

When the UCC initially booked its 2007 General Synod at the newly constructed Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford, the State didn't give the denomination any financial incentives. But that changed when the UCC determined that the union rights of Convention workers were being thwarted.

For this reason, in a Hartford Courant story posted at UCCtruths, UCC Associate General Minister Edith Guffey said:
We're not threatening to move; we will move if this issue is not resolved.
Consequently, UCC President John Thomas said in an email to UCC Conference Ministers:
The only other option within the city capable of accommodating General Synod, the Hartford Civic Center, initially proved too expensive. As directed by the Executive Council, UCC Associate General Minister Edith Guffey began exploring other cities as possible venues for the General Synod.
That's when Connecticut governor M. Jodi Rell intervened. Not wanting to lose the largest ever convention in Hartford--and the economic benefit of 8,000+ visitors that could bring in up to $7 million--Rell pulled some political strings. The Connecticut Economic Development Authority (REDA) awarded a $100,000 grant to the Greater Hartford Convention and Visitors Bureau, who in turn applied it to the UCC's use of the Civic Center.

Responding to the grant news, Guffey said in a June 6, 2006 United Church News press release:

This type of incentive program is a common occurrence, a way of doing business. We appreciate the collaboration between the governor, CEDA, and the Hartford Visitors Bureau, and their efforts to keep the UCC meeting in Hartford.

Guffey also told the Hartford Courant:

...the governor wants very much to make this work, and that they will be taking care of the $100,000 fee for the Civic Center...It's a very generous assistance, and we're very appreciative of it.

Here's the bottom line that Rev. Lynn and the AU should note well:

It was due to the United Church of Christ's religious conviction--that it would not hold its Synod in a facility involved in a labor dispute--and the UCC's financial inability to move its event across town to the more expensive Civic Center--and the UCC's promise to move its religious event out of state--that the State of Connecticut and its governor intervened and worked out its $100,000 grant.

And after all this, Rev. Lynn still isn't complaining.

Usually, "liberal" means someone with a progressive outlook toward politics and social issues. But it can also refer to someone who is generous.

And in this case, Rev. Lynn's silence about Connecticut giving his liberal UCC $100,000 for its General Synod is ... shall we say ... generous.


Anonymous said...

Although I am about as far from the writers of this article theologically and politically as can be gotten (frankly, I am a theo-radical and an anarchist in the mold of William Stringfellow and Jacques Ellul and want nothing to do with the so-called "evangelicalism" that the blog owner obviously represents), I concur that Barry Lynn is a hypocrite, pure and simple.

I rode along with the UCC's promising the moon on social justice and religious freedom for many years. But let us face facts, at base, the denomination is just another religious institution seeking to perpetuate itself in the face of fears of extinction, which many of its leaders have taken entirely too seriously--as well as themselves. Stringfellow taught in his writings that religious institutions are, Biblically understood, fallen principalities and powers themselves and have no inherent right, in and of themselves, to authority over any consciences. Old-style liberal ecumenism, despite its professions of theological tolerance, never really came to comprehend such a teaching, bound as it was to traditional, established institutional ways.

I guess the UCC has moved on, and so have I, toward an independent, anti-political (that is, refusing to be tempted by power) community of the Gospel, emphasizing direct action over public policy. It is my hope, after engaging in deep prayer and submission to God's will, to start one myself in the near future. From henceforth, I consider myself a Congregationalist; maybe it is time to give the National Association, the ICCC, and other looser forms of free church life (but not the 4Cs or the other right-wing splinter groups) a chance without dismissing them as primtivist and reactionary. But I'm not holding my breath that many will.

In the meantime, thank God (and I do mean seriously) for the Society of Friends.

Anonymous said...

Let me clarify the penultimate and final paragraphs. By saying that the UCC and I both "have moved on," I mean quite emphatically in opposite directions, even if not on much political/ideological/theological territory. The UCC is moving backward, in my view, toward a theology of power that appears to be nothing more than a mirror image of the evangelical/rightist paradigm that rules the executive and judicial branches of our present U.S. government.

Further, my term "anti-politics" refers to the anarchist (i.e., non-violent) style of life enunciated by Jacques Ellul in many of his writings.

And by "Society of Friends," I mean, of course, the Quakers. can tell you everything about this group that actually walks the walk on issues such as world peace, poverty, and even sexual sanity. Why? The Friends largely eschew institutionalism by holding many meetings in private homes and (in most cases) employing no professional, "hireling" (as older generations would have it) clergy.

May God's peace and love reign despite our sin.

Anonymous said...

I rectify--belatedly--a mistake in the web address for the Society of Friends; it is in fact My apologies for the mistake and what misleading occurred because of it.

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