12/20/2013 04:51 pm ET Updated Feb 17, 2014

Momentum And Inertia: Twin Threats To The Separation Of Church And State

I did not watch the new version of The Sound of Music recently, but I did stumble upon one of Bill O'Reilly's screeds against "secular progressives" while channel surfing.

A sizable percentage of Americans seem to buy into Bill's nonsense about losing their religious freedom because of those devilish "secular progressives." This term has become an all-purpose, right-wing bogeyman.

"Secular" has a dual meaning: non-theistic, or simply seeking government neutrality in matters of religion. Theists and non-theists can share the fundamental view that government should not be picking "winners or losers," thus giving no imprimatur to any or all religion. These same people also insist that religion fund itself without taxpayer subsidies. The corollary is that religious people can believe and practice whatever they choose, no matter how old, new, odd, simplistic or dogmatic anybody else thinks it is -- until or unless these beliefs impinge on the legitimate rights of others.

That's the agreement. It has worked well. It hasn't hurt religion. In fact, we have a dizzying level of spiritual resources in America -- at least 2,000 different faiths and 25 million freethinkers, atheists, humanists to round out our intellectual landscape.

Today, we have two main problems related to separation of church and state. To borrow from physics, one relates to momentum, the other to inertia.

The "momentum" relates to the continued presence of a powerful force commonly known as the "Religious Right," which constitutes about 20 percent of the American electorate.

This is a movement of theocrats who seek to write public policy along narrow sectarian lines. I have a book on my desk called Politics According to the Bible, which in its 624 pages gives a purported answer to every conceivable political issue. It doesn't just tell you that U.S. policy should prohibit abortion and disallow same-sex marriage, but drills down to explain what the Bible (properly understood) tells us what should be the next fighter aircraft to be purchased by the Air Force -- it's the F-22 Raptor, in case you're wondering.

Many of the people who think this way are also yammering about an alleged loss of "religious liberty." In an egregious example of altering the meaning of words, they believe that even for-profit corporations, whose bosses oppose contraception, can refuse to cover it in their employees' health insurance plans.

The far right says corporations have free speech rights, so they must have religious liberty rights too, a kind of "corporate conscience." One of the companies in a case now before the Supreme Court is a national arts-and-crafts chain, another is a Mennonite-owned furniture company. If I ever see a make-it-yourself garden gnome next to me in a pew at church, or sit down on a wooden lawn chair and have it start praying with me, maybe I'll consider that companies have legally cognizable religious freedom claims. Until then, this is just a way to claim that the religious convictions of the head of the company control the moral decision-making of the dozens or thousands of men and women who work for these firms.

But two things are happening that give me solace about the Religious Right's future -- or perhaps its lack of one. First, when it comes up with truly bizarre ideas, like a North Carolina proposal to allow each county to align itself with a particular religion (and we all know that there would be so many Islamic and Scientology counties), a few comedic comments by Jon Stewart or Rachel Maddow are often enough to laugh it off the legislative landscape.

Second, a variety of new polls find that far-right evangelicals are losing their grip on their own children. A growing number of children in evangelical households now accept the evidence for evolution, and the percentage of young evangelicals supporting marriage equality is now 64 percent. Those are not exactly pro-growth trajectories for extremism.

Now for the inertia. I refer here to what one might call "political inertia," the tendency to have political leaders normalize things that the Framers of the Constitution would have found quite abnormal and truly dangerous. Here are a few examples.

President George W. Bush began a program referred to as the "Faith-Based Initiative," an effort to get more grants and contracts to religious providers of secular services from mentoring to feeding the hungry. Based on the largely mythological claim -- akin to the existence of "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq -- that there was widespread discrimination in giving government funds to religious groups; he claimed he wanted to "level the playing field."

At the time, the Wall Street Journal reported that Catholic Charities alone appeared to be getting about $500 million dollars in federal aid and the Salvation Army, literally a Christian denomination with strong homophobic tendencies, got $89 million dollars for programs in New York alone.

Bush did recognize that you couldn't force people to participate in religious services to get help (although plenty of groups still try), but he did allow groups to get tax support even where they refused to hire persons in those subsidized programs who have different religious beliefs. You could literally hang up a sign in a Baptist homeless shelter seeking staff: "No Jews or Atheists Need Apply," as if humanists tucked in bed sheets differently than did Baptists. This compromised an executive order going back to the Truman Administration barring such religious discrimination in hiring with taxpayer dollars.

When candidate Barack Obama addressed this matter back in 2008, he said this kind of discriminatory hiring in taxpayer-funded programs would stop when he was elected. Here, approaching 2014, this practice still continues. Worldvision, whose president is a frequent visitor to the White House environs, will not hire any non-Trinitarian Christians even in predominantly Muslim or Hindu nations where the group operates, funded in part with its $640 million dollar U.S. government subsidy over the past five years.

Worldvision sees no problem, denying that their policy is even "discriminatory." Noted one official: "We're very clear from the beginning about hiring Christians. It's not a surprise, so it's not discrimination." Right -- we told you, Ms. Parks, that you'd have to sit at the back of the bus before you bought the ticket, so don't go claiming we are bigots.

So why does this practice continue? Write a letter to the president and see what he says. He will respond that federal agencies are evaluating each hiring practice on a "case by case basis." The Justice Department says you can discriminate if you sign a document that says that employing individuals of a particular religion is important to your religious exercise. In other words, they'll take money from everyone, but use it to hire only people just like themselves. This is referred to as "self-certification." Maybe every big time drug dealer who is arrested could be released if he "certified" that he didn't do anything wrong, and even if he did, he did it because of his religious affiliation.

Then there are our tax laws. Churches and most other charities are given a 501(c)(3) exemption and are only forbidden to do one thing: absolutely no endorsement or opposition to any candidate for public office. Some ignore the rule. Over the past few years we have reported about 50 really egregious cases of pulpit politicking for or against candidates -- not allowing people to get on the church bus to go to the polling place unless you agree to vote Republican, or telling parishioners that voting for Barack Obama was like voting for both Hitler and Stalin at the same time.

These complaints have languished for years. Why? A judge in 2008 ruled that the IRS needed to rewrite a simple regulation to have a slightly more senior official sign off on investigations of this kind of activity. This administration hasn't done it. This administration has been unable to publish a rewrite in nearly five years.

So much was written in last month on the 50th anniversary of the murder of President John F. Kennedy. Let me conclude with a brief observation he made to a group of Protestant ministers in Houston as he was campaigning in 1960:

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute - where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote -- where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference -- and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

To that, a secular "amen" and a question: Would any political figure today be willing to be this blunt today? We need some who will.

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State in Washington, D.C. These remarks are adapted from a speech Lynn gave Dec. 9 while receiving the Puffin/Nation Prize for Creative Citizenship in New York City.