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Rev. Barry W. Lynn on The Supreme Court, Retirement, and His Upcoming Book

September 24, 2020

The recent passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has left many shaken. A few weeks prior to her passing, Leighann Lord had the opportunity to speak with Rev. Barry Lynn, former executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, an organization dedicated to the preservation of the Constitution’s religious liberty provisions. Rev. Lynn has spent much of his career working between religion, government, and fighting for the rights of marginalized communities.

He and Lord discuss his new retirement and how it was not what he was anticipating, stories from his new book, “You Don’t Know Me – But You Might Have Heard of Some of the People I’ve Met”, the importance of the separation of church and state, the hyper-politicization of US politics, how we’ve moved away from finding creative compromises, and how this has bred a new kind of evil in men like Tucker Carlson. Finally, Rev. Lynn speaks his views on the Supreme Court and what needs to change for anything meaningful to happen and how even before Justice Ginsburg’s passing, the difficultly and unlikelihood that certain policies, like The Green New Deal or Medicare for All, would be passed.

You can find out what Rev. Lynn is up to by visiting his website or twitter.

We are proud to announce that this episode of Point of Inquiry was sponsored by the Wadsworth-Sheng Fund. Our friends, Spike Wadsworth and Sherry Sheng, are committed to ensuring that everyone has access to thought-provoking content that addresses the big questions in science, religion, politics, and culture. We are grateful for their support. If you would like to learn more about how to support Point of Inquiry or the work of its umbrella organization, the Center for Inquiry, please contact our Director of Development, Connie Skingel, at

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This Week’s Music

“Idle Ways” by Blue Dot Sessions / CC BY-NC 4.0
“Before Fall Asleep Trees” by springtide / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

So they know exactly what they’re doing and sensors are the same way.You give them a little bit of power to restrict what people can say. Which means what they can think. And they’ll never, ever give up. 

My name is Leighann Lord, your co-host for Point of Inquiry. My guest today is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and the former executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. He is now that thing that not everybody in my generation will get to be retired. He has written several books, including Piety in Politics, The Right Wing Assault on Religious Freedom, God and Government. Twenty five years of fighting for equality, secularism and freedom of conscience. And he is working on an upcoming book. 

You don’t know me, but you might have heard of some of people I’ve met. 

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting our guests. One night when I breezed into the Sirius XM studios to do my Tuesday night comedy and commentary gig on Tell Me Everything with John Fugelsang, I sat down next to him and we bantered about music and the day’s events and I kept thinking, wow, what a smart and funny man. I have to invite him to be a guest on Point of inquiry, not realizing at the time that he is in fact a point of inquiry alarm appearing on the podcast in 2013, discussing the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court case and then again in 2015, reiterating that a truly free country requires a secular government and that true religious freedom requires church state separation. So please welcome back my guest, the one and only Reverend Barry Lynn. 

It is so nice to be back here. 

When I when I looked in the archives, I’m like, oh, my goodness. He’s a fan favorite. This is awesome. 

Oh, but I have to ask you, what is this thing you are calling retirement? Because you you have a lot of things you wish you would do. A lot of things. I mean, it was Americans United. You’re reverend. You’re a lawyer. Are you done with all of it or just some of it? Like, what’s your what are you doing? 

I had a plan and had a plan. What are we going to do in retirement? But a strange thing happened. I had a big retirement party they threw for me here in Washington and wonderful people. Lewis Black was the emcee of some women singer songwriters that I dearly love, volunteered to perform. I had videos from people that couldn’t get there. I had live action people including from the great. My congressman at the time, Jamie Raskin. And it was fun. It was great. And then three weeks later, things became not so great. I woke up in an Indiana, Pennsylvania motel and I said to my wife, you know, I. I can’t really get out of bed. She said, just just get up and brush your teeth. I said, I can’t. Now she’s a doctor. So I haven’t take her seriously. And she came over and she said, What are your symptoms? I said, well, my left arm hurts. And she said, we are going to the emergency room. And I said, no, no, let’s just go home. And she said, we are going to the emergency room again because she’s a doctor and because she’s a lot smarter than I am generally. I said, OK, let’s go. And when we went to this little hospital in Indiana, Pennsylvania on Thanksgiving. No, no. Two people never, ever get sick on a holiday because they’re understaffed and people are just kind of in and out. And they had no cardiac unit, but it was clear that I had a serious cardiac problem. So three days later, they were able to transfer me to the Cleveland Clinic, reported to be the best heart facility, a hospital in the in the United States. And so I was there for weeks and I spent a couple more weeks in other hospitals and they found that I had a very serious heart condition. I was 36 hours at one point under anesthesia when I woke up. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t speak above a whisper. And I knew it was in trouble when my wife finally got around explaining exactly why I was under so long. My heart had apparently stopped. During that 36 hour period. So it was really a very, very close call. 

And the first thing I did when I started to get back to normal, I spoke at the American Atheists Convention three years ago. 

And David Silverman was still its president. He had invited me and I had spoken there a couple of times. But I said to them, if the folks because this is the first time I had ever had to speak for 45 straight minutes, I barely was back on able to walk. And I just didn’t know how this would go. But I did describe what happened then. I suggest the people that you should never mix retirement with a near-death experience because you can’t really do justice to either one. 

I didn’t want to talk about it, so I said to retirement I would have planned for myself or anyone I die. 

I don’t recommend it to anyone in the audience. Don’t retire and do the near death thing. Kind of split it up, you guys. Pace yourselves. 

Whenever I speak the atheist group, because I am a theist and I’m usually introduced as the one theist that whoever the introducer is does not want to convert to Athie ism. But I did want to confirm one thing I said, even this near-death experience and I could see lights and I didn’t see anything like is described. The tunnel of light just ceased relatives. Maybe David Bowie coming at you in a tunnel to welcome you into heaven. I had none of that. I didn’t see any of that. So I wanted to explore them that their nonbelief in an afterlife was secure, at least if I was the measure of success. 

Wow. No David Bowie. That is disappointing. 

I was making a couple months earlier and it was a it was a tragedy, but I didn’t see him. I think most people that retire have big plans. They want to go see other countries. They want to. I had a list, Lee-Anne, a hundred point list of things to do. 

Are you serious? One hundred point list. Yeah. Because you’re so carefree. 

Yeah, but it’s better because I had already done 15 of them before. I had the heart problem. 

And just just so we’re clear. A heart problem. Not on the list. 

Not on the list, not even on a bingo card. It just was not there. It took me a long time to get most of my voice back and to get the feeling in it. A few months after I got out of the hospital, Lewis Black, who I mentioned that emceed my my retirement party at a road me said I’m going to be in Washington. And how would you like to do a rant? At the end of my show. And he said, normally I just let people read my rants. But maybe you have something to say that you would write it yourself. And I said, that’s a great idea. But very few things in my life really petrified me. But this idea of speaking to a thousand people in a big auditorium in Washington at the behest of Lewis. I was very scared. I had been scared giving a speech since I was a junior high school, I think. But but it weird did go over. It did go over quite well. And I ended it by saying after I got enough laugh lines to make me feel like I might have succeeded. I said, and thank you very much for listening to this and for not turning me into an episode of the new show on Showtime called I’m Dying Up Here, which. Which I think is still on Showtime. But who knows? I see so many shows. 

How many shows? A little time. And I have to tell you, I watch that. And I thought you were wonderful. And I thought you were funny and sincere. You and I know that feeling of wanting to get enough laugh lines to feel like, okay, I’m I’m satisfied. My laughter obligation. I don’t know. I can I can be proud after the show and meet you at the bar and and be confident that I have entertaining you. I think he’s thoroughly he thoroughly did that. I don’t know if you want to say decided now to go into the rent business. 

I think I did. It was either right before or after that that John Fugelsang had me do something at the Westside Comedy Club with a bunch of great, great comedians that I find that John, for some reason attracts these wonderful people. And I’ve become very good friends with a lot of them and used to see them when I go to New York. And course now I don’t go to New York except in in a dream state. 

And but it’s it’s wonderful. And I. 

But Lewis has actually been he’s been a very big part of my life since I first met him. Would you like to know how I first met him? 

Yes, I would love to know. I loved Lewis. I think he’s fantastic. He and my dad got along famously. So how did you meet him? 

Well, I met him because I got an award a few years ago. It’s called the Puffin Prize given by the Puffin Foundation and the Nation Institute. And it was given to really prestigious people. The Cecile Richards, of course, the former head of Planned Parenthood, the author of Angels in America, Tony Kushner. I mean, I was very, very excited and somewhat surprised that I would be offered this. It’s called a creative citizenship award. And then I got even more excited when Lewis turned out to be the emcee for that. And I got there and I was right around Christmas, so I had written some material. You know, I’m not a comedian. I mean, I just maybe see life in a slightly weirder way than some people. I’ve written a bunch of jokes about the war and Christmas, but Lewis told so many jokes about the war on Christmas, I thought, I’m not going to try to compete with my favorite comedian of all time. So I have to write new material. So over Sal and I wrote some new jokes. Wow. I stood up and I thank the family that gave out this award with a sizable amount of money connected to it, which, of course, I always plowed back into do good organizations. And I said and I also want to thank you not only for the award and for the money, but for having Lewis Black here to see this. And I looked at him. He’s sitting in the front row. And I and I said, because this is the first time I have not had to pay one hundred and twenty five dollars just to say, oh, it was so we actually became buddies. And he had lost his father this year. But his mom’s still alive, lives not too far outside of Washington. He’s she’s over a hundred years old and but they came to a speech he did at the National Press Club which invited me to and. So I got to meet them. And I hardly recommend that when he and Fuglesang and Alan’s wife Bell get back together. 

Goodness. Yeah. Who can get a word in edgewise? 

But they always have. They always have a woman. They always have a woman, a writer or a comedian. And I last saw them just a couple weeks before all this hit. The fan here and at some college outside of New York State was called Inglorious Bastards to. 

Yes. And I think I know that show I had wanted to go and but something came up and I wasn’t able to to get to it because, you know, why wouldn’t I? And then that was such an enjoyable, mindblowing evening. 

Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. And I understand that the word that the title Inglorious Bastards was too controversial for Facebook. Oh, wow. Well, they had to advertise it in other ways, but I think standards have changed. I think they have. When I when I when I came back to start doing Jon’s show, I used to just do it about church state issues. It was very serious. You know, half an hour. What’s going on in the courts. But one day he said, you know, we’re trying to mix up a few academics and activists with some comedians, put them on a panel. Would you like do that? And I said, of course, I’d like to do that. And I did a couple of them. Then I was in the hospital for four months, and then I gradually worked my way back to come on the show. And I think the night I saw you a few months ago was I would think it was sitting around all three hours. Because I love watch what people do. I love to watch how comedians do the craft the way that they do as professionals instead of my, you know, my amateur. 

No, no. You you fit right in. And I think that was bagged as, of course, in the before times, but in the before times and and not too long before the shutdown, you know, where we still just physically showed up places. And I think it was either in the 10:00 hour or the 11:00 hour. And yeah. But now I mean, now that you say that I do remember that you used sort of had done the yeoman’s job of being there the whole time. And John was very solicitous, you know, making sure, like, you can’t say if you want to if you don’t want to, it’s OK. But you you definitely hung in there. I do have a question for you. When I watch you on Lewis Black show, you said something very interesting that you felt unhinged and not in a crazy way, but that you felt sort of now unattached. You know, now that you’re retired, you’re unattached to the obligations of an organization. And do you still feel that way? Do you really feel that that’s freed you up to speak your mind more? 

Yeah, I really think it has. I worked for the United Church of Christ for a number of years, and I tended the work on really controversial stuff. Amnesty for Vietnam War resisters. We were in bombed in the first major sexuality study by any major Christian denomination that was controversial. And so when I’d go to a place like Kansas and want to pick on Kansas. 

But I would say, OK, Kansas understands. 

Yeah, they do. What is the matter with Kansas? But even someone would pick you up and they they fly you around in a four seat airplane. And that’s scary enough. And but then when I go and make a presentation, I feel like I had to duck. 

And I say, I’ve been working now to get an amnesty for people who resisted the Vietnam War. And I duck. Wow. So that was controversial. And then when I worked for the American Civil Liberties Union after that. It’s such a bureaucratic place. I mean, do you have to you have to tow a party line? I mean, you have to be careful. Like during the time that I was there, the main thing I did was fight the Ed Meese commission on pornography, which what this was at a time when there was, I think, a somewhat legitimate kind of criticism from feminists. But most of it was just a bunch of hacks who were trying to look at dirty pictures through the prism of the old morality. And it was it was it was a strange, strange tour. But I felt like one of the things I did right away was write an op ed piece for the Los Angeles Times and the editor of the L.A. Times called me up and he said, you know, at first I thought this would just be this some kind of a dry discussion about the First Amendment and what the standard is for obscenity is. But this is very interesting because it’s about what people might benefit from pornography. And it was so engaging, I guess, that they printed it. And then I got a certain amount of flak for that because it wasn’t really wasn’t a party line. It was the party line of people who are fighting censorship back in the 70s. You always had to say this. You have to say, no, I don’t look at any of this stuff. And I thought, no, of course, you’re going to look at what you have to be able to look at and then go, yeah, OK, maybe not my cup of tea, but what line could be drawn? It would make it clear that you can censor this, but not that. And I also realized at that time something that I’ve held to for a long time, when people want to clean up dirty movies or books, they really don’t care so much about the pictures. They care about what the people are doing and the nature of their chosen sexuality. And this came to wonderful fruition. One night there was a wonderful feminist writer named Carol Vance and Carol wrote books about sex panics. You know that there were comic books in detective magazines and they were all cause unbridled sex. And now she was looking at this at porn as the kind of trifecta of things that we had to blame for all of the world’s ills. And so we went there were two seats on a bus that would take the commission members. There were 10 commission members and two people from the public on a bus trip to Houston adult bookstores. So I called Carol up as soon as I saw others noted in the Federal Register, which is where they print all the things that they have to let the public know that something is happening. And. And they went to the three of these places. And the third one of the most interesting. These, by the way, were not. They couldn’t be mistaken for these adult superstores that now are in shopping strip shopping malls all across America. I mean, these are pretty sleazy places and that place. Water running down the middle of the floor. My so I. I find myself in what was called in a buddy booth. This is long before the Internet, long before you could actually rent this stuff and watch it on the weekend. And. And people, you know, they watched and they did a few other things in Buddy Booth and so on. A buddy both with Ellen Levine, who at the time was the editor of Woman’s Day magazine. She was already kind of turning on this commission, eventually dissented from its findings. And Henry Hudson, Henry Hudson was a vigorous prosecutor of all things sexual in Arlington County, Virginia. 

And he became the president of the the chairman of the committee. And so we’re watching. An oil shock anyone but two two gay men wearing green rubber monster masks, having sex. 

Don Henry turns to me and he says, Barry, when you testified before the commission, you said that all of this stuff has ideas. What’s the idea here? 

And I said, well, Henry, how about. 

Try it, you might like it. He didn’t think it was funny about one zero one. 

Well, had some, you know, dealings with it. She was kind of wondering what she had gotten into. She could barely constrain her laughter. But that’s when I thought, you know, he can’t stand the people. He can’t stand anybody who isn’t a straight white guy like he is. And I think that really is a basis for so much of the efforts to censor around the country and not just with sexual material, but anything. I was on a panel with Judy Blume, the famous Judy. 

And that’s my generation right there. What am I saying? No. No, I’m not. I’m so much younger. 

Tom Flynn. Oh, yeah. They look so much younger. No, but, Judy, an hour on on a panel about censorship. And I, I said to her, what’s the strangest thing you ever had censored so many of her books. They dealt with teenagers and suicide and sexual blast and all that. And she said it was Mad Libs. Now, Mad Libs are books that are very popular and they have blank spaces in them. And then the person reading the story says to the audience, fill in. It can be a noun. Give me an adverb. Give me an adjective. And I said, well, why would any school system want to ban Mad Libs? Is it just a wonder blank words? And she said. But they were afraid. 

Of what words, the kids in those. Come on, really? So they were afraid of possibility and imagination. 

Exactly. Wow. You know, the censors get on to some other things, but I mean, censors, in my experience. It’s kind of like the dog that comes in. Are you sitting in a park or you sitting in your backyard and a dog comes and you have a little leftover lunch and you go, oh, what a cute dog. I think I’ll give him part of the sand, which then you think, well, he’ll never come back. But dogs don’t do that. They come back for dinner and lunch the next day, maybe breakfast in between. 

So they know exactly what they’re doing. And sensors are the same way. 

You give them a little bit of power to restrict what people can say. Which means what they can think. And they’ll never, ever give up. 

Yes. People will find a way. Yes. Yes. It seems like we always have a return to extremes. You know, people, you know, are free to do and say and post anything. And then you have people on the other side going, oh, that’s too much, you know? 

Yeah, I think there’s too much. 

I mean, I remember I got. 

I’m probably the only person I think I can safely say the only person in history who will ever receive both a Hugh Hefner Playboy Award for free speech and also a an award from the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute up in Hyde Park for the freedom to worship. 

So I got a freedom to worship medal and a free speech award from the Playboy Foundation, which pretty much kind of. I don’t need any more First Amendment award. 

I mean, there are other privileges on this. Freedom of the press has a right to petition your government for redress of grievances and all of those things without belaboring this. But you’re right. It’s so much more is available. So many things can be seen that couldn’t be seen. So many things that you had to go and hide in order to have a chance to look at them now are more commonplace. But I remember one of the final debates after we have to we went through the the the whole nature of this when I graphy commission and they accepted the award. Ed Meese was the attorney general. He accepted the award from Henry Hudson, a chair of the commission. And they they they were so annoyed with me that they didn’t let me in the press room, but they really couldn’t stop me from being in what they called the overflow room. And I had a big television screen at the front and I was just sitting there and I figured I could take my notes and figure out what to say when I held a press conference later in the day. And I noticed that people were screwing in their microphones and looking up toward the ceiling and giggling, Oh, Daddy. Oh, dear. I say, what is this? And then I realized they were accepting this report under a statue of the goddess of justice. The Goddess of Justice statue happened to have one exposed breast. For many, many years after that, I referred to that photograph as the three boobs photo. 

But anywhere and again, I am tickled because this is you can you can see that, you know, before breakfast on Instagram now. I mean, you know, times have changed so much. 

So I am now that you are. You seem to have returned to some semblance of health. You are enjoying retirement. 

I’m hoping that I can make that statement because, you know, one of the things I love about your Web site, which, of course, I did visit prior to this conversation, you could easily, easily have a Web site that just chronicles your achievements. You know, this award, that award, you know, this job, that job, just because you have had a full life of work in which you have done good work and achieved many things. 

And what I like is that you kind of talked to that, you know, what you post is a, hey, this is what I’m doing. So it’s you’re retired, but you’re still moving and grooving. 

If I might say, you know, you’d be opposed to you’re doing interviews with or where you’re going, you know, going even if it’s virtual. And I like that. I like that. So much is so easy for your. Again, for a website to be your CV and you. I don’t know if this was a conscious decision. I don’t know if you realize that, you know, the effect that that would have on me. Here’s someone who’s still doing things and who people want to talk to. I’m I’m actually lucky you you were able to fit me in. 

Oh, I saw this. 

I know that you would have that websites. Barry W. Lynn dot com. 

And I sure you were going to. Yes, I was. But. But absolu. Yeah. I recommend folks visit that. And, you know, you get a chance to see where you are going to be next and what you’re doing. And I know one of the things you’re doing, I know it’s not done, but you are working on a book. Are you not the you don’t know me, but which you say. Well, I’ll let you talk about it. But it’s it’s it’s I, I’m assuming it’s all these people that you have met because again, you have had an illustrious career in life and met many people. 

This is the book I wish I had written before. I’ve written a couple other books and they’re okay, but I’ve never been completely happy with them. But this one, I wanted to tell my story through the life and the lessons I learned from people. Good, bad and ugly people that I have met in my life. And that ranges from presidents, senators, Hollywood celebrities, comedians, musicians. 

And I’m about two thirds of the way done with the rough draft of it. And I put up on the website. I said some of the people I want to talk about, President Clinton, Ralph Nader, Lauren Bacall. So I did a thing last week for a church outside of Washington, virtually, of course, and. 

I didn’t mentioned Lauren Bacall, but somebody had read the website. The first question was, but you didn’t tell us about Lauren Bacall. So I will. I will. Well, I met her once. There was a very famous television show in Washington before even before Robert MacNeil started the MacNeil report later became like air report. And it was done by Maury Povich, who was the host. Maury Povich is cause now is known primarily for doing interviews that involve lie detectors about whether you did or didn’t sleep with your best friend’s sisters mother. But at the time, he was very political and he was very, very into talking about real issues. And it was a big deal for senators to be on his show. There were no remote cameras at the time at a truck all the way across from Capitol Hill almost to the end of Washington, and more was on. We were having a debate over compulsory national service. And I hate compulsory national service. I hate conscription of any kind. And my opponent that day and for many, many events afterwards, a guy named Pete McCloskey pull in, Pete McCloskey, a Republican from California who was really coming by today’s standards, he would be a communist, but he was just a liberal Republican. 

I’m sorry, what was that compound phrase? 

That a series on Showtime, the L word, I think it was that we had this discussion and Lauren Bacall is the next guest and she’s sitting, you know, right outside the stage and we’re having this debate. 

And Lauren Bacall comes up as she’s about to be ushered on and we’re gonna be ushered off. And she looks at Congressman McCloskey and she says, damn, I am very impressed by your idea. I don’t do voices, but I am very impressed with your idea. And she looks at me in that withering stare that you see in the black and white movies. And she said, And you. Not so much. Oh, yeah. Well, most people never get to talk that. Lauren Bacall. No. So the fact that she didn’t like my opinions, I mean, I’m sure she was a very liberal person in Hollywood and I’m sure that if we had had drinks afterwards, we would have managed to agree on 90 percent of the other things. But not that. 

Oh, that’s not that. That’s hilarious. 

So we hired a researcher because I find that my memory at age 72 is not perfect. I’m finding this is a good thing. If your listeners is thinking about writing a book about their lives, and I do find a lot of people are interested in doing that during this pandemic, it’s great to be able to talk to people that you haven’t spoken to for 20 or 30 years. And in a few days meeting with a virtually over the phone with someone I worked with on a big project to stop the return of the draft. And he’s been a lawyer in Philadelphia. And I found that the first man that hired me is probably 80 years old now. And he’s but he’s still with us. And we had a a wonderful chat a few weeks ago about some things. He’s writing a book. And he said, I’m sending you some pages of the book. And I just wanted to know if this is the way you remembered it. And I actually didn’t remember it that way. So that was a predicate for the phone call. But when I said, no, that’s not how I remember it, but I’m writing a book, too. And this is the way I describe that incident. And then I read in my version of it. 

And literally, by the end, we were both in tears because you missed Auton thing that, you know, the things are important in your life. You’re not sure how important they are, but they make all the difference. You can recover from some bad judgments, but if you make the right good judgment, it literally shapes your life. And this is not a Hallmark card. I mean, I think this is reality for most people. And I’ve always tried when I try to mentor people and try to say, look, you can do this. You can you can try this. I mean, if you if it doesn’t work, you’re twenty three years old, you’re going to have another chance that it would take the chances that you need to take in order to do the things. When you look back at your life, you’re gonna say it was a pretty damn good life. 

That’s the stuff of good mentors because you’re so busy, you can get so caught up in the day to day. You know that you do need someone to give you that little push. 

And my my argument is that you need mentors at every phase of your life. You know, it’s sometimes, you know, if people you think a mentor, you think, oh, it’s just young people, depending on how you define young, you know, under 30. 

But, you know, sometimes the over 30 crowd gets a little out early. 

You know, even the over 40 crowd I love. I love multigenerational interactions because I know that the folk most likely to talk me down, you know, from from the ledge are people, you know, in their 60s and 70s and 80s who have seen a few elections, cause I have seen the country go through twists and turns. 

And you always think the moment that you’re in right now, I call it the arrogance of the moment, that this is the most important, tragic thing going on right now. And someone who’s 80 will say, go, come here, young lady. Let me talk to you and immediately win me over because they say, young lady. 

And in you you get this this different perspective. And I sometimes feel that that’s what we’re missing and you’re not, you know, engaging in that. And we’re get making an effort to get that multigenerational perspective, which I think was easier to get. Years ago, living in a multigenerational home or being in a workplace where they valued their older employees and didn’t just try to get rid of them. There was there was value there. And so I am always quick to say, please don’t write off middle aged folk is because we are having your midlife crisis is when you need someone to talk to you. I remember talking to a wonderful gentleman on the board of CFI. And as I was going through some stuff with my you know, my parents were getting older. I didn’t know how to handle it. And, you know, what a what choices am I making life? And I said, I think I’m having a midlife crisis. He goes, Oh, is it your first one? I said, My first one. 

He said, Yeah, you have more than one to make. I thought I’d be one and done. He goes, Oh, no. There are many twists and turns and changes in life. And yeah, you sometimes think it’s a crisis. 

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One of the things that I noticed now, I was very political, it was never terribly partizan. I remember Pat Buchanan. I used to do radio with him for about a year and a half, three hours a day. People said, how could you stand it? Yes. And I used to say, well, I said he promised that he’d make me the head of the National Endowment for the Arts for the week before he abolished it completely. That was enough. But the people that are floating around on the left and the right today are near retirement or maybe if quasi retired, but you still see them doing commentary. There are some people that it’s worth talking to. Even on the far right. 

And some people, it’s just not worth talking to because they have devolved from mildly entertaining people into real evil people. 

Evil, I think, is a word that needs to be resurrected. We need to say not. Well, it’s a wrong idea. No, it’s evil. It’s evil. And so much of what Donald Trump does, I think is evil. Let me tell you about an example of this. I did radio for a couple of years, just one day a week with Oliver North. And Oliver North, of course, is not a revered figure, no longer even with the National Rifle Association to kick them out. But if I can find one thing, one important thing that I agree with that person about, I am willing to cut that person significant slack. Ollie North. Militant. Many people don’t know this is an opponent of the death penalty under all circumstances. And when I discovered that, I realized I can call him up. And if there’s going to be an execution in some place that has a Republican governor. But Ollie North is such a big fund raiser for the Republican Party that anybody would take his call and he would actually make the argument that somebody should not be executed or there should be a delay in the execution. He’d make the calls. And I think that to me, when you’re on, perhaps surprisingly, on the side of the angels for a change and you’re willing to do something about it. Compare that to Tucker Carlson. I’ve known Tucker Carlson forever. He’s a little younger than I am. And we used to have kind of entertaining things. He was the host of CROSSFIRE for a while before some of your listeners may remember this. Jon Stewart came on CROSSFIRE. Paul Begala was the left of center, slightly left of center guy, and Tucker Carlson was the extreme right guy. But Stewart said, among other things, you know, guys, I’m not going to be a trained monkey tonight because you’re wasting time with these phony debates. Let’s talk about the substance. And it was so embarrassing that CNN took it off the air. But now he’s gone from amusement, the things that he’s done very recently, like he called Senator Tammy Duckworth, who is a who has lost both of her legs in the Middle East. He called her a moron, a coward, a moron and a coward. And then just a few days ago, it was reported that he also revealed the names of two people. Who worked for The New York Times, who he said were about to reveal the location of his house and that would put his family at jeopardy. But in fact, they had no plans to do that. They never revealed where he lived. But he by mentioning them. He did reveal where they live. Right. And they were harassed. And people would pound on their door for days and yell at them and scream at them, and they were really afraid of what would happen to them. So Tucker Carlson is going for a mildly amusing who are genuinely hateful figure. And those are the people I don’t think you can find this kind of strange common ground that I might find with somebody like, you know, like all in North or even on rare occasions with Pat Buchanan. So, yes, I think you have to deal differently with people on the basis of just what they have become, how open they are to genuinely looking at their ideas and possibly, possibly changing them. 

You’ve answered a question that I. That I wanted to ask, which is because you seem to have such an ability to do this. And I think you’ve given us a clue why. And my question was going to be, what gives you the ability to talk with difficult people or people who are so ideologically different from you? If we’re going to go with the the Oliver North example, it’s finding at least one thing that you like about that person. But then we get to the extremes. Someone like Tucker Carlson where, you know, we even question the commonality of our own humanity because of how far they’ve strayed. 

So much of my life has been devoted to finding. 

Among other things, what I call creative compromise is the kind of compromise that usually occurs in Washington is what I call the idiot’s compromise, where you have two people in two ends and then they go, well, let’s just split the difference and nobody’s happy. This is what’s happening up with. If it ever comes next, stimulus program. Democrats want X trillion. Republicans want really nothing. They meet in the middle. And the answer is they can’t help. But but there were creative compromises. I can think of one. There was a huge battle over prayer in the schools, of course, and we used to always be able to defeat that, but barely. And sometimes with the help of people like Barry Goldwater, I remember Reagan wanted Barry Goldwater to champion this amendment to bring organized prayer back to public schools. And Goldwater. Came out one day and he said, you know, we have over 50 native tribes in Arizona alone. How are we possibly going to come up with a prayer that won’t offend almost everybody? And so you wouldn’t vote for it. And later, Barry Goldwater, who I kind of had a soft spot for when I was in junior high school, also when debates occurred over whether LGBT people could be in the military. He famously said, you know, I don’t really care if a person is straight. I just care if they can shoot straight. But there was a big fight over prayer in the schools and the Reagan administration really worked hard for it and didn’t get it. And then somebody came up with this idea of something called the Equal Access Act. The Equal Access Act was designed to allow religious clubs to meet in public schools. And I thought this was really a terrible idea. But I also knew that the Supreme Court looked to be itching for a decision in which they could uphold that. So I went to one of the right of center and hardly not a kooky person, a right wing religious figure in Washington. And I said, why don’t we just change this? Why don’t we just make this not about religious? Why don’t we make it about every club, any club of a religious social? Political or cultural nature can meet in a public school. He said, that’s great. Let’s do that. So he went to the principal sponsors and talked to them and they all agreed. Yeah. Let’s put that in. I called my boss at the ACLU in New York at the time, and I said, look, this is the one and only chance we’ll ever have to create a federal student right to meet Bill. It started out as just about religion and it would be uphold that upheld that way. But this is a chance to let every student group meet and give it a federal mandate to do so. And so he said, that sounds great. I was trying to do that, you know, 20 years ago in New York City’s schools. And so we passed it. And it was responsible for the creation of hundreds of gay straight student alliances all over the United States at a time when this was really an important measure. It’s still important, but it used to be even more important. 

And and to their credit, the right wing lawyers. 

With one exception, never challenged the existence of gay straight student alliances. They obviously didn’t like them and they were repulsed by what they thought might be going on in the minds of the people in those meetings. But they didn’t challenge it. 

Yes. Creative compromise. I wish I wish more people were less sort of grounded in their own dogma to be able to, you know, sort of reach across the aisle, around the aisle, whatever words supposed to be doing as human beings. I want to tell you, I was perusing some of the articles that you’ve written for church and state magazine. And one of them really jumped out at me was one that you wrote in December 2016. Not an emotional time in our country at all. The title of it was an alternative to despair, stand up, strategize and start fighting back. And you you said something toward the end of the article. My view of this moment in history is even clearer. We have no option but to battle against expressions of bigotry, homophobia, Islamophobia in every other bad tendency in the records of the president elect. 

And I read that and I have to tell you, it it you could have said that in 2016, 2017. 

You know, yesterday I am one of those people I will sadly admit this. I become easily discouraged. This is, I guess, a gimmee question. Do you still stand by that statement, sir? 

You know, I do with one caveat. OK. That is that I didn’t expect. And I actually thought that was probably based on something I had been asked to do. You know, I don’t play any music. I’m a big music lover, but I don’t play any. But a Dar Williams is a good friend of mine, a wonderful singer songwriter who, among other things, has a great song about Christians and pagans getting together at a Thanksgiving dinner. And she called me in the summer before the 2016 election, said she wants people to open who are not musicians and is a big venue in outside of Washington called the Birchmere. And she said, would you read from that book you wrote? And I said, sure, because it sounded like fun. And then the election happened. So I had to create something else. I didn’t find a single chapter in the book, God and Government that was relevant. 

So I wrote my own new chapter and I read it that night. 

And I did expect, though, that Democrats would fight harder, that they would not make the kinds of deals that Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi make. I thought they’d fight harder and they didn’t. And I think that’s why we have so many judges. You know, if I could do one thing, if I could get one issue, that it could be sure. 

Would occur with the next president. It would be that he would since. 

Got to be a he he would expand the size of the Supreme Court precisely to reverse some of these terrible decisions about guns. Terrible decisions about voting rights. And, of course, about reproductive choice and the separation of church and state. People are so afraid of that. Oh, well, you know the issue. If they expanded with for more than the next time as a Republican. No. Six more. I worry about that later. I don’t think that the current Supreme Court, even with Ruth Bader Ginsburg on it. They wouldn’t uphold any formulation of Medicare for all that is out there. They wouldn’t affirm the Green New Deal, any version that’s meaningful that’s out there. You have to change the nature of this institution. I work my whole life to defend the Constitution. But it’s been so radically redefined in the past few years that it’s almost unrecognizable. And we have to change that. The court is not just. You know, it’s always been viewed as the final arbiter of everything. But now it’s a disease vector. It’s making all kinds of horrible decisions. So when the Democrats didn’t fight as hard in the Senate. When even in 2018, when the House flipped it, it just wasn’t. They just didn’t do enough. I wish they had impeached on more grounds. Nasty pillows. Yeah. And so that’s the only disappointment. That’s the only caveat I would have. But I still think you cannot give up. You literally can’t, because to give up now is a statement of national suicide. That’s what it is. You have to keep fighting. Is Joe Biden perfect? Absolutely not. Is Kamala Harris perfect? Probably not. But is she way ahead? And is he way ahead of the nincompoops that are running the country now and who the polls are beginning to say are narrowing the gap? We can’t afford four more years with Donald Trump at the helm. 

I heard someone last night, I don’t remember what I was listening to, but they said we can’t afford four more minutes of Barry. I will I will say thank you. I actually love what you said. You thought they’d fight harder. 

That’s a great title for something. You know, maybe another book, but definitely a sentiment, too, to carry forward for the rest of us. That, yeah, maybe we all we all need to fight harder because if we can do that, then maybe they can, too. Thanks, Barry. 

Thank you. 

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Leighann Lord

Leighann Lord

Standup Comedian Leighann Lord was the New York City face of the African Americans for Humanism outreach campaign sponsored by the Center for Inquiry and it’s Millions Living Happily Without Religion campaign. Author Chris Johnson featured her in The Atheist Book: A Better Life. Leighann has been a co-host on the Emmy-nominated StarTalk with Neil de Grasse Tyson. Leighann has shared her comedic and hosting talents at many secular conferences including American Atheists, American Humanists, Center for Inquiry, CSICon, DragonCon – SkepTrack, The PA Freethought Society, NECSS: The Northeast Conference on Science & Skepticism, PASHTACon, and Skepticon. Leighann is also a CFI certified Secular Celebrant; officiating at milestone life events commemorated with a nonreligious worldview. And she was honored with the 2019 Humanist Arts Award from the American Humanist Association. As a veteran standup comedian, Leighann has been seen on Lifetime, VH-1, Comedy Central, and HBO. She is the author of Leighann Lord’s Dict Jokes: Alternate Definitions for Words You’ve Probably Never Heard of But Will Definitely Never Forget (Volumes 1 and 2) and Real Women Do It Standing Up: Stories From the Career of a Very Funny Lady; available on Amazon.