A Visit to the ACLU Headquarters

John C. Rankin

[excerpt from First the Gospel, Then Politics …, 1999, Vol. 1, now out of print]

On several occasions in the 1990s I was in written communication with Ira Glasser, then executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). One reason for writing was in response to an ACLU fund-raising letter he penned, using certain figures of the so-called “religious right” to pillory. His language declaimed their “hateful speeches,” their “massively funded and dangerous political force,” “their dangerous, anti-liberty agenda,” and that “(w)hat we face today is an energetic and resourceful ultra-right-wing religious movement ….  hell-bent on continuing the civil liberties assaults …. ” He then itemized three “anti-liberty” agenda points of the “religious right”: 1) “Break down the wall of separation of church and state,” by “mandating prayer in the public schools and forcing taxpayers to support religious activity”; 2) “Trample the privacy rights of millions by restricting women’s reproductive choices,” by “having anti-choice Justices appointed …. in electing anti-choice lawmakers …. in having their onerous and frightening anti-abortion state laws upheld …. ”; and 3) “Attack the ACLU” in a “battle” by “those who place themselves in opposition to liberty” (emphasis in the original).

What is noteworthy in his language is the abundant use of extreme adjectives that help serve to dehumanize the political “enemy” in order to conduct a successful fund-raising campaign. If we as Christians ever embrace this practice, we may as well forfeit the authority of the Gospel. In Christ Jesus, we have the power to love enemies.

In fact, Glasser’s letter was partly in reaction to a leader of the “religious right” whose metaethics of language included the call “to take back our culture.” Depending on context, this language can be read by detractors like Ira as though it were the power to take and coerce, not the power to give and the power of informed choice. Now this phrase requires nothing in terms of coercion, but the metaethics of it allow the ACLU to rationalize that it does. In my desire to see society transformed by the Gospel, I  speak in terms of “winning the culture through the art of persuasion.”

So I invited Ira out to lunch, meeting him at his office in downtown New York City, which overlooks the Statue of Liberty and his native Brooklyn. Of Jewish ancestry, he describes himself as an agnostic. We had a good conversation, and he was straightforward in saying that his hyperbolic language was indeed designed to use the “religious right” as a shill, as “bait” to lure donors to the ACLU by defining “the enemy.” He spoke of it as how the game is played, and how the “religious right” does it all the time. But biblically based Christians should never play such a game.

I told Ira that I have never and will never engage in such a game, that in all my conduct, I will seek to exercise the power to give in relating to him or others who hold different views on public policy interpretation. As I communicated with Ira in the meantime, he added his belief that my “eschewing of hyperbolic language in direct mail solicitations is not typical of ‘biblically-based Christians.’ ” Do we in the church hear what he is saying? Can we be truly biblical if we use hyperbole designed to set up straw figures to attack, so that we can raise money for our politics or “ministry?”

I once was told by a different first-hand source, an attorney within an ACLU affiliate, about a national “pro-family” organization and a national “gay-rights” organization that struck a Faustian bargain under the table to periodically attack each other in the media and in their fund-raising letters. Thus they could respond to such “outrageous attacks” with a moral superiority, and maximize fund-raising success for each of their own respective organizations.

This source is well placed to know this, and he kept the parties involved anonymous to me. He himself is a “gay-rights” partisan, and he confided in me because I had reached out to communicate with him in the process of a long lunch conversation. He responded positively when I articulated the power of informed choice and my opposition to the church ever using coercive means in her witness, and after this point his trust in me visibly increased. It was the articulation of the power of informed choice and its resonance in him that caused him to think about this Faustian bargain, and to relay his thoughts about it to me – about how he had also opposed it from his partisan perspective. So I do not know this information first-hand, but if indeed there is any truth to it, then those in the “pro-family” organization have to face the judgment of God for their deceit and the bad reputation it brings on the name of the church. Indeed, for any Christians who may be involved in such an arrangement, it is no different than the spiritual prostitution that led to the Babylonian exile.

Once I was given, by an ACLU advocate, a copy of ACLU Briefing Paper, Number 1: “Guardian of Liberty: American Civil Liberties Union.” In its section on “First Amendment Rights,” it reads:

“These include freedom of speech, association and assembly, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion, including the strict separation of church and state.”

When I visited the ACLU offices in New York, it was adorned with many framed posters that celebrate the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution). The first three rights are listed as 1) “freedom of speech,” 2) “freedom of press,” and 3) “no mixing of church and state.” In view of these two listings where the freedom of religion was placed last and as negatively as possible, I asked Ira Glasser why the ACLU ordered these liberties in a manner inconsistent with the First Amendment. He said that he “sees no hierarchy of values among First Amendment rights” and that the order in the Briefing Paper and the framed posters was not deliberate.

I am skeptical. To me this approaches the heart of the debate – the ACLU Briefing Paper and posters do not reflect the order of liberties as stipulated in the First Amendment, and in its support of the same. The ACLU did not, in these instances, reflect the history of religious liberty that this nation was founded upon, nor its tracing back to biblical covenantal law.

There is a great distinction between the American Revolution and the French Revolution. In the American Revolution, the power of informed choice was being pursued, with a resistance to the state-established church as England then had. But this was a resistance to a false wedding of church and state in an Anglican context, based on a biblical worldview having arisen to the surface in the Colonies, where religious liberty was the first and defining freedom. In the French Revolution, it was not a biblical resistance to a false wedding of church and state in a Roman Catholic context, but it was a secular resistance to such a wedding where religious liberty and other liberties became dispensable under Robespierre and Napoleon.

So during our lunch, I expressed to Ira Glasser my conviction that without the freedom to believe what we choose to believe, then there can be no freedom to speak what we believe, publish what we believe, assemble in accordance with our beliefs, or redress the government according to what we believe. I defined religious liberty as the freedom to believe religious or nonreligious worldviews, which is what the 1961 Torcaso and 1965 Seeger U.S. Supreme Court rulings say. This is the natural reading of the religious liberty that is rooted in the biblical power of informed choice. I told Ira that without religious liberty as the first and defining freedom, all the other freedoms are moot. And he did not dispute my contention, especially as he understood my definition of religious liberty. In fact, he said that such a view which includes people like himself is most welcome – and I argue that such is the constitutional view to begin with.

I believe that many in the ACLU and elsewhere react to those Christians, who in their definition of religious liberty, fail at the metaethics of language, and leave the impression, whether true or false, that somehow they wish to restrict civil liberties, as though such liberties are the unique property of Christian peoples. Various ACLU-minded people react with a boomerang understanding of the non-establishment clause of the First Amendment, believing it means the exclusion of religious opinion from the public domain. But in fact it means the preclusion of a state church, so that all people are free to participate fully in the public domain according to their express religious or nonreligious beliefs. It means that the state cannot rule the church as an institution, nor can the institutional church rule the state. Thus, it equals a level playing field in the contest of ideas and is an unalienable right which all people have equal access to – whether they are biblical, pagan or secular.

The heart of the debate is this: What source is there for liberty among all the religious origin texts on the planet, and how can any political or economic liberties be fully protected apart from religious liberty? The roots of the First Amendment are in only Genesis and its power of informed choice. And if this source is not historically recognized and publicly celebrated, then the slide back into ancient paganisms and tyranny in human government is assured.