Dickinson College Homepage Dickinson Magazine This issue of the Dickinson Magazine was mailed on Monday, April 4, 2005
From This Issue
Volume 82 • Number 4
Spring 2005

A United Front
Meet Barry Lynn ’70, the guy fundamentalists love to hate
By Sherri Kimmel

“In at least two-thirds of the American States one of the easiest ways to get into public office is to denounce him [Darwin] as a scoundrel. But by the year 2030, I daresay, what remains of his doctrine, if anything, will be accepted as complacently as the Copernican cosmography is now accepted. His offense was simply that he was too precipitate.”
—H.L. Mencken, April 6, 1931

Seventy-four years after Mencken wrote this passage for the Baltimore Evening Sun, the debate on Darwin’s theory of evolution still boils like primordial muck. Mencken is long gone. But in the thick of today’s fray is another media personality, Barry Lynn ’70.

He’s lanky with a face that’s faintly Lincolnesque. And on a mid-December Wednesday, Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, is in his office across from the U.S. Capitol fielding interviews with nine major national news outlets and one with his alumni magazine. Despite the chaos—aides racing in every several minutes to announce yet another request for his time—he remains calm and focused but on fire with conviction.

He’s used to defending the separation of church and state, as upheld by the U.S. Constitution. His latest target is intelligent design, described by its decriers as a creationism-in-scientific-clothing ideology that has been creeping its way into public schools in recent years. It’s a growing concern, despite a 1987 Supreme Court decision that outlawed the teaching of creationism and evolution side-by-side, because such teaching violates the separation of church and state.

Just the day before, Lynn was in tiny Dover, Pa., about 25 miles from Carlisle in York County, to announce that Americans United was teaming up with the American Civil Liberties Union to sue the local school board for pushing intelligent design, which posits that life systems are so complex that natural selection can’t explain them—there must have been an intelligent designer.

If it comes to trial, the Dover case will be equivalent in importance, says Lynn, to the jazz-age trial of John Scopes, a Dayton, Tenn., teacher who was convicted—in a dual between superlawyers Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan—of breaking his state’s law against teaching Darwin’s theory.

Lynn shakes his head at the thought of how far we have not come. “It’s embarrassing that 80 years after the Scopes conviction, we have to fight to protect evolution again.”

The case, he feels, “could go on for years—or it could fold soon.” He’s prepared, as always, for the long haul.

“They have their principles, and we have ours, but I think that ours will prevail. If this gets to trial and works its way up in the federal courts, this could be the death knell for intelligent design.”

It’s not that he thinks the antievolution theory shouldn’t be discussed in public schools—but in its proper context, a class in religion or the humanities, not science.

“To act like it’s two schools of thought—and at war—is dumbing down science. Intelligent design starts with a conclusion, whereas science starts with data that builds into a hypothesis that is then tested.” Lynn brought his views to campus on March 22 for a debate on intelligent design, sponsored by The Clarke Center.

In his 12 years with Americans United “now is the most difficult time for church/state relations,” he contends. “I’ve never had a peaceful day since George W. was [first] elected.” Among others, his group has battled:

• Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore over a 10 Commandments monument he placed in the rotunda of a state judicial building
• state funding of religious schools
• the use of “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools.

Lynn is used to the hard fight. He’s been doing it since he was a high-schooler in Bethlehem, Pa., when his refusal to join the marching band in a parade that promoted the Vietnam War made him quite unpopular in his community.

As a Dickinson freshman he joined his first protest—driving to New York City to oppose the Vietnam War. Shortly before graduation, he helped lead an antiwar march on the U.S. Army War College. “My leavening [as an activist] came in the supportive community at Dickinson,” Lynn says.

An English major, Lynn counts as influential people philosophy professors George Allan and Merle Allshouse and political science’s Don Flaherty, “who wanted to teach courses with ‘rigor and relevance’. ”

And then there was Joanne Harley ’70. They were married the week after graduation by President Howard “Bud” Rubendall ’31, whom Lynn recalls was a “tremendous mentor.”

Thirty-five years later, the Lynns have two children and many shared beliefs. Joanne, a physician, author and end-of-life-issues expert, is president of Americans for Better Care of the Dying. “We run on parallel tracks to, in some small way, make the world a better place,” he says.

When the pair left Dickinson to begin married life, Barry thought he would be a pastoral minister. An internship with the United Church of Christ allowed him to speak out on public issues, using the skills he’d honed as president of Dickinson’s Debate Society. “It became clear that I could make a career in public-service work.”

Lynn added a law degree to his ministerial one and worked for the ACLU for many years, before joining Americans United. While his job entails running a 70,000-member organization with 50 chapters, 35 staff members and a $4.5 million budget, much of his time is spent keeping Americans United’s priorities in the public eye. He does this by appearing on TV and radio; writing op/ed columns; raising money; and speaking at special events, conventions, conferences and colleges.

He’s a frequent contributor to what he calls the TV “food fights,” facing off about once a month with Fox’s Bill O’Reilly, who Lynn contends is not so bad. “It’s like sitting down with a relative you disagree with.”

One of the opportunities Lynn most enjoys these days is his 4-6 p.m. weekdays radio show, Culture Shocks, broadcast across the country by Genesis Communications Network.

In the past he did weekly talk radio with Oliver North, who is quoted as saying, “I like bright people, and Barry’s a very bright person.”

Despite the fact that Lynn and his organization often are pitched as the liberal side of every Crossfire-type argument, Americans United is not lockstep lefty.

“We did a survey two years ago. Our members do lean to the liberal, but we have Republicans as well as Democrats. A lot of Republicans think that to be conservative means to conserve principles, like the separation of church and state.”

Despite the death threats (there’s a reason security is so tight in his office building) that sometimes come after one of the 1,000 interviews he does each year, and the grueling pace (“there are so many things that need to be done!” he says), Lynn is not about to step back or slow down.

“In comparison to so many people’s description of their job, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I get up in the morning feeling I’m doing something important, and I’m excited to do it.” •

 


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