Dunn led in fight for religious
liberty, against 'ignorance'
___By Adelle Banks
___Religion News Service
___WASHINGTON (RNS)-- James Dunn, a religious liberty advocate who has worked the corridors of Washington power for two decades to defend the separation of church and state, says he doesn't get fired up about "In God We Trust" on coins or "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance.
___Instead, he says, he's carefully picked his battles on Capitol Hill and around the country
as the executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs.
___Vouchers, school prayer and "invincible ignorance" about church-state separation are the kinds of issues that get his attention.
___"There are still people who think that when we say we want separation of church and state ... we mean we don't want God in public life," he said. "What we mean by it, on the other hand, is that the institutions of religion and the institutions of government are separate."
___Sitting in his office not far from the U.S. Capitol and the Supreme Court, Dunn recently reflected on his role representing Baptist groups that currently include four African-American Baptist denominations as well as German, Swedish and Seventh-day Baptists.
___On Sept. 1, Dunn, 67, moved from the role of executive director of the agency to being its chief fund-raiser as president of the Baptist Joint Committee Foundation. He also will serve as a visiting professor of Christianity and public policy at Wake Forest Divinity School in Winston-Salem, N.C.
___In his emptying office, but still adorned with his favorite portrait of the crucified Jesus, Dunn said the spark of his passion for religious freedom came from Fort Worth, where he grew up the son of a milkman.
___A seminary professor teaching a class at his Fort Worth church helped him as a teenager grasp the Baptist notion of "soul freedom," and Dunn never let go.
___"Religion is a transaction between you and God," Dunn said in his notorious Texas drawl. "It's personal and voluntary, and if it's not personal and voluntary, it's not worth anything."
___Dunn believes some of the successes he's helped the committee achieve include legislation upholding those kinds of religious freedoms. He points to the Equal Access Amendment of 1984, which allows students to gather for prayer before and after the school day and was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1990.
___"That proves that the school is not required to rule out all religions, that public schools are not religion-free zones," he said.
___He has countered members of Congress and conservative Christian groups who believe a constitutional amendment addressing school prayer is still needed.
___"We've seen the American people understand they don't need Mr. Istook, that Istook was mistook," said Dunn, referring to the 1998 defeat of the Religious Freedom Amendment sponsored by Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla.
___Dunn considers the appointment of a U.S. ambassador to the Vatican in 1984 to be a memorable defeat.
___"I think it's a wrong-headed, unconstitutional misappropriation of funds," he said. "Other than that, it's probably OK."
___Dunn, who is known around Washington for his quick wit and bow ties, often worked at a frantic pace, recalled Oliver "Buzz" Thomas, the former general counsel at the BJC.
___"I said, 'James, you're going to get an ulcer,'" said Thomas, now special counsel to the National Council of Churches. "And he said, 'Buzz, I don't get ulcers. I give them.'"
___One of Dunn's most visible battles was with the Southern Baptist Convention, which was once represented by the committee but chose to defund the group in 1991.
___"I think he handled it in a remarkably mature way," said Grady Cothen, retired president of the SBC Sunday School Board. "Attempts at defunding had been under way for a number of years, principally because he refused to take instructions from the fundamentalists who had taken over the SBC."
___One of the issues at the time was the desire on the part of conservatives to ascertain the Baptist Joint Committee's stance on abortion.
___Richard Land, the Southern Baptist leader who now has the responsibilities Dunn once had, said Dunn never responded to requests from SBC leaders to detail the group's stand.
___"He refused to answer it, which is one reason why I have his assignment and his money allocation and he doesn't," said Land, president of the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
___ But former SBC President Jimmy Allen believes control, not abortion, was the bottom-line issue in the dispute.
___"I think the losing of the funding from the SBC was an inevitable direction for the Southern Baptist leadership," said Allen, who was the last SBC president elected before conservatives executed a plan to win the presidency year after year and change the direction of the denomination's agencies and institutions.
___ "They were looking for any occasion, and an unsent letter is as good an occasion as they could find."
___Dunn said the BJC lost 51 percent of its budget due to the SBC action, preventing some staff members from cashing their paychecks for a time.
___Dunn, who still refuses to state his or the committee's opinion on abortion, said he no longer describes himself as a Southern Baptist.
___"I'm a recovering Southern Baptist," he said. "I'm trying to get over it."
___Since that time, the committee has been supported by individual Southern Baptist churches and state conventions in addition to other Baptist groups.
___"We really haven't skipped a beat," said Aidsand Wright-Riggins, chairman of the BJC board. "Through his leadership, we've been able to recoup the losses that were made from the withdrawal of the Southern Baptist Convention and moved even farther along the journey."
___One of Dunn's jobs now is to build the BJC's endowment, which stands at more than $870,000, to $1 million by the end of the year.
___Despite his troubles with the largest group of Baptists in the country, Dunn is credited with success in building bridges with a variety of groups, Baptist and otherwise.
___"He exhibits a real multi-denominational cultural fluency that has allowed him to move in and out of the various denominations," said Wright-Riggins, executive director of national ministries for the American Baptist Churches in the USA. "One would always think that that was the denomination to which he belonged."
___Dunn estimates he's preached in 2,000 churches, and he proudly attends meetings of groups that can afford to support his committee with as little as $900 a year.
___Dunn's favorite example of "single-issue coalitions" is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, known as RFRA, which sought to restrict governments from interfering with religious practice.
___"There's no one beyond the pale," he said. "On the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, we had (conservatives) Tim and Beverly LaHaye and we had the Christian Coalition and we had the Mormon Church."
___Now, he and a variegated coalition are working to enact the Religious Liberty Protection Act because the U.S. Supreme Court struck down RFRA and ruled Congress overstepped its powers in enacting it.
___"Those coalitions change like those doodads in a kaleidoscope," he said. "The way to be politically effective is to muster the master list of everybody who agrees on that particular issue."
___Even as he departs his position, Dunn remains concerned about pending threats to church-state separation. Vouchers are at the top of his list, ranking higher than past debates over graduation prayers.
___"What is not generally said is that greed and racism and self-interest are basically behind the push for vouchers," he said. "To make a law--even if it's a tax law--to take tax money from everybody and try to filter it through the parents by calling it `choice' and making it a voucher is a violation of the separation of church and state."
___Dunn often remembers the exact dates of court decisions and newspaper articles on issues at which he's been the center. But, after 20 years, he said the controversy that's come with his position became a fact of life.
___"I speak to Baptists about the Baptist role internally and externally and because I do that, it is controversial," he said. "Controversy is an inevitable corollary or by-product of taking any kind of clear and firm position in our pluralistic culture."
The quotable James Dunn
___ On the notion of a "naked public square" with no religion: "We don't have a naked public square. All the politicians talk more about God than they ever have. ... If anything, the public square is overdressed. We've got more religion. I mean, they've got on a fur coat in Houston in August."
___ On school prayer: "It'll brew from now on because it's a political issue. It's a leap-year issue. Every presidential election year, it'll come up because politicians, cynical mortals that they be, will use religion to try to trump their opponents."
___ On threats to church-state separation: "The biggest one is the massive, massive pool of invincible ignorance and greed and selfishness and institutional advancement and racism that fuels the push for vouchers. ... I have yet to meet a Yankee who understands the degree to which fundamentalist churches trying to get their children out of the public schools because they have to go to school with all races is behind this voucher push."
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