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 the 42-year-old Berg, who goes by the name Lee, says the transition was “just as providential as any opportunity to serve a local congregation.”
In Texas, Berg was active for 10 years in a struggle over control of the Southern Baptist Convention--a struggle eventually won by fundamentalists, to Berg’s dismay. He was more successful in his efforts to help traditional 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 defend public education from attacks by conservative Christians and the political right. “With that background,” he says, “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.”
His presence at the NEA hasn’t escaped the notice of conservative critics of the union, such as Robert Simonds, president of Citizens for Excellence in Education, a California-based group that works to elect Christians to school boards. In a fund-raising letter last fall, Simonds wrote that the " NEA has hired a backslidden Baptist preacher, Lee Berg, Ph.D., to go from district to district to spread hate against all evangelical leaders.”
In fact, Berg’s primary job is to work with local and state affiliates to cultivate grassroots support for legislation endorsed by the NEA, says Mary Elizabeth Teasley, the union’s director of government relations. He is also active in coalitions that support public education and oppose--as the NEA does--school vouchers, school-sponsored prayer, and parent-rights legislation. And he keeps close tabs on what members of conservative Christian groups are doing and saying.
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 the union’s positions, such as People for the American Way and the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs.
Speaking carefully in a mild Southern accent, Berg starts with a history lesson by way of explaining 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.
Berg’s 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 or drowned.
Later, in this country, it was a Virginia Baptist named John Leland whose influence prompted James Madison to include a guarantee of liberty of conscience in the Bill of Rights. Traditional Baptists still cherish this tenet, says Berg, who was named for the Virginian.
But fundamentalist Baptists now are pressing for what Berg views as a dangerous mingling of church and state in their support for using public money for religious purposes. “Religion is a powerful thing,” Berg says quietly. “It’s inherently dangerous to mix religion and government.”
Not only can the mix be dangerous, it can also lead to unwanted government intrusion into church affairs. In the 1970s, when Berg was studying for a Master of Divinity degree at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, the federal government filed suit against the school to force it to follow specified affirmative action hiring guidelines. The lawsuit came about because the seminary accepted federal money to educate veterans. “If you accept government money, you’re opening yourself to government control,” Berg says. “As a pastor, I always opposed that.”
J. Brent Walker, general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, a Washington, D.C.-based group that represents 12 Baptist organizations on religious-liberty issues, says the NEA was smart to hire 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.”
At the NEA, Berg has worked with people from all walks of life and all perspectives. The union is far from monolithic, he says. “What we have in common is a commitment to public education and to do what’s best for kids.”
A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1997 edition of Teacher as The NEA’s Prime Minister