Minister at NEA Fights for Separation of Church and State

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The headquarters of the National Education Association--the scourge of many religious and political conservatives--is the last place one might expect to find a deeply committed Baptist minister.

But it's exactly where John Leland Berg wants to be. After 23 years as a local pastor in Texas and Mississippi, he joined the NEA in 1995 to continue his longtime fight for the separation of church and state.

Admittedly, it was an unusual career change. But Mr. Berg, who goes by the name Lee, says the transition was "just as providential as any opportunity to serve a local congregation."

In Texas, Mr. Berg was active for 10 years in the struggle over control of the Southern Baptist Convention, which fundamentalists eventually won, to his dismay. He also helped traditional Texas Baptists reject what he calls a "radical right" takeover of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, an association of 5,000 churches in the state.

So it wasn't much of a stretch to take his expertise to the NEA, which was looking for someone to help it promote public education and defend it from attacks by conservative Christians and the political right.

"With that background," he said in a recent interview, "it was only logical that I could bring practical experience, historical understanding, and a knowledge base to help the NEA help our members respond to attacks from the far right."

As a senior professional associate in government relations, Mr. Berg, who is 42, applies the expertise he gained in 17 years of public advocacy for First Amendment rights--not to mention the academic knowledge he honed in writing a doctoral dissertation on what he called the "New Religious Right."

His presence hasn't escaped the notice of conservative critics of the teachers' union, such as Robert Simonds, the president of Citizens for Excellence in Education, a Costa Mesa, Calif.-based group that focuses on electing Christians to school boards.

In a fund-raising letter last fall, Mr. Simonds took offense at Mr. Berg's work for "the radical left teachers' union."

He wrote: "NEA has hired a backslidden Baptist preacher, Lee Berg, Ph.D., to go from district to district to spread hate against all evangelical leaders."

A Dangerous Mix?

In fact, Mr. Berg's primary job is to work with local and state affiliates to cultivate grassroots support for legislation endorsed by the NEA, said Mary Elizabeth Teasley, the union's director of government relations.

He is also active in coalitions with other organizations that support public education and oppose--as the NEA does--school vouchers, school-sponsored prayer, and parental-rights legislation.

And Mr. Berg keeps close tabs on what members of conservative Christian groups are doing and saying. He registers as a minister to attend the Christian Coalition's annual Road to Victory conference here, for example.

Mr. Berg's first job at the NEA was a temporary post in the office of human and civil rights, where he helped build coalitions with groups sympathetic to its positions, such as People for the American Way, a prominent liberal advocacy group, and the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs.

Speaking carefully in a mild Southern accent, Mr. Berg often starts with a history lesson to explain why he believes religion and government should stay miles apart.

Many Americans forget--or were never taught--that nine of the original 13 colonies had state-established churches, he points out. Dissenters in these states, including Baptists, Roman Catholics, and Jews, were often systematically persecuted.

His own European forebears, the Anabaptists, insisted that no one should come between an individual and his God. They were despised by conservative leaders of the Reformation and burned at the stake and drowned, Mr. Berg says.

Later, in this country, it was a Virginia Baptist named John Leland who influenced James Madison to include a guarantee of liberty of conscience in the Bill of Rights. Traditional Baptists still cherish this tenet, says Mr. Berg, who was named for the Virginian.

But today, fundamentalist Baptists are pressing for what Mr. Berg views as a dangerous mingling of church and state in their support for using public tax dollars for religious purposes.

"Religion is a powerful thing," Mr. Berg says quietly. "It's inherently dangerous to mix religion and government."

Comfort and the NEA

Not only can the mix be dangerous, it can also lead to unwanted government intrusion into church affairs, Mr. Berg argues.

When he was studying for a Master of Divinity degree at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, in the 1970s, the federal government filed suit against the school to force it to follow specified affirmative-action hiring guidelines, he notes. The lawsuit came about because the seminary accepted federal money for veterans' educations.

"If you accept government money, you're opening yourself to government control," Mr. Berg says. "As a pastor, I always opposed that."

At the same time, Mr. Berg has had personal experience with the benevolent hand of government--something he says too few Americans are ready to acknowledge and express gratitude for.

In 1992, he and his family were flooded out of their Houston home and received assistance from the federal disaster-relief agency.

The next year, they moved to Mississippi, where he was the pastor of a local church until August 1994. At that time, the church went through a split, and Mr. Berg took a job editing a journal of Christian ethics.

One day, he dialed the NEA's job line in Washington, and the second position on the tape sounded tailor-made for him. Eventually, he landed the position in human and civil rights and moved East. His wife and two teenage children stayed in Meridian, Miss., to finish up public school and sell their house.

J. Brent Walker, the general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, a Washington-based group that represents 12 Baptist organizations on religious-liberty issues, says that the NEA was smart to hire Mr. Berg.

"It's healthy and helpful to have religious folks in positions of leadership in organizations that are caricatured as being anti-religious," he says. "We ought to be able to disagree and debate policy differences without impugning Christianity or religion."

Mr. Berg is a member of the national advisory council for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, another Washington group active in the same debate.

Barry W. Lynn, the executive director of Americans United, agrees that the NEA has taken a "bad rap" from conservative Christians, who claim that the union is trying to undermine religion.

"In hiring Lee," he says, "they clearly wanted to send a signal that people who take religion seriously can feel comfortable working with the NEA."

The union is far from monolithic, Mr. Berg says, noting that he has found people from all walks of life and all perspectives at the union. "What we have in common is a commitment to public education and to do what's best for kids."

As a pastor back in Texas and Mississippi before he came to work for the union, Mr. Berg used to tell the public school teachers who were active members of his congregation that religious conservatives were trying to demonize teachers and public education in order to get access to public dollars for private schools.

These days he might have a better answer for the teachers who often asked him, "Who's going to speak up for us?"

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