I was thinking about how the media report religious controversies, and particularly how they decide to identify particular individuals as key generals in the ongoing culture wars. (Yes, I know the “culture wars” are usually assigned to the 1990s, but you know what I mean).
Recently I read a Christian Century piece about a familiar type of secular/religious confrontation, which made a point of quoting Barry Lynn. He was identified as “Executive Director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State,” a secularist organization that I will hereafter refer to as AU. You actually see a lot of Mr. Lynn in the media, writing or being interviewed on a predictable range of topics: abortion, same-sex marriage, faith-based charities, school vouchers, and so on. He is highly prominent in the ranks of the religious liberal-left. He is also an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ.
To put it mildly, there are many issues on which Mr. Lynn and I do not see eye to eye. Having said this, though, he is of course quite free to express his views. I have no reason to doubt that he is absolutely sincere about his opinions, nor do I have the slightest suspicion of any questionable or disreputable behavior on his part.
But here’s my problem. I have not got a clue what AU actually is, or why the media so regularly refer to him in that context. Yes, the organization has existed for quite some time, in fact since 1947, when Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State was formed to resist what seemed to be Catholic advances in the public realm, especially in education. And Mr. Lynn has served as its Executive Director since 1992, and it is in that capacity that he speaks to the world. He makes no false claims.
But what is AU? I know very well what, for instance, the ACLU is, as I can easily find its chapters spread across the country, and I know several members personally. They are especially common in university settings. Across the country, around a half-million actually pay dues to the organization. But I know nothing comparable about AU. It certainly exists in the sense of having an office in Washington DC (K Street, of course). It has a well-constructed website, and puts out a newsletter. AU even claims local chapters, most of which seem to operate out of PO Boxes. (That is an impressionistic comment, not a scientific survey). But even if every one of the chapters represented an active local movement, we are still dealing with a minuscule national presence. Have you ever met an AU member, seen anyone wearing an AU button, or walked past an AU chapter office?
My impression is that AU is, basically, a Washington office with one articulate spokesman, who directly represents virtually nobody.
Others may well share Mr. Lynn’s views, but in the vast majority of cases they have not the slightest affiliation to his organization. The Wikipedia site reports that AU claims 75,000 members, but I see nothing on the source to which that figure links (the “AU FAQs”) to support that. Am I missing something? Such a figure seems very implausible, especially given the paltry number of chapters listed on the AU website. To get anywhere close to that 75k figure, each chapter would have to have several hundred members, which is most unlikely. I honestly wonder whether AU’s active membership even runs into the thousands, if that (although I’m quite prepared to be corrected on that). I’d love to see some worthwhile numbers.
So here’s my suggestion. If media outlets think that Mr. Lynn expresses an important point of view cogently, then by all means have him appear as an independent writer or broadcaster. But while presenting him primarily as the Executive Director of an impressive-sounding organization is technically correct, it really is misleading.