I was born in... Nah, let's not start that far back. Let's just say after dropping out of graduate school in history I became a football coach-- in fact, the first story I ever sold was to a coaching magazine, about a way to change blocking assignments at the line of scrimmage, and I was on the staff of a guy who was named national major college coach of the year. I quit coaching to write, first as a Washington journalist covering economics and national politics, then I finally began doing what I always intended and wanted to do: write books. Two of those books have in turn involved me in policy-making.
One area is flood protection, and I served on the levee board responsible for protecting most of greater New Orleans. On July 24, 2013, that board filed suit against Exxon Mobil, Shell, BP, Chevron, and 93 other oil, gas, and pipeline companies for the damage they have done to the flood protection system in the board's jurisdiction. I was probably the chief architect of the suit, and to read more about it go to the "Suing Exxon" page on this site; a link to a cover story about the suit in The New York Times Magazine is above. The suit is a significant event in Louisiana and the governor demanded we withdraw it, but we are an independent board, created after Katrina, and (supposedly) insulated from political pressure. Because of the suit, on October 16, 2013, Governor Bobby Jindal removed me from this board, but my involvement continued through Restore Louisiana Now, a 501c4 non-profit (see RestoreLouisianaNow.org). The governor and the oil industry swore they would kill the lawsuit retroactively in the legislature-- that's right, they'd pass a bill to retroactively give the industry immunity. They filed 17 bills to attack the suit. We killed 16 of them. The 17th was so poorly written that we believed it does not even hit its intended target, it is unconstitutional, and it has enormous unintended consequences-- so many that the attorney general, 166 law school professors, several parish presidents, and others advised Jindal to veto the bill. He signed it anyway, on June 6, 2014.
In October 2014 a Louisiana state court threw that law out, but in February 2015 a federal judge dismissed the case, saying the board had no grounds for the suit. Her logic was bizarre. The core of the case rests upon the undisputed fact that land loss increases storm surge against the levees, and a federal law makes it illegal to do anything which could "impair the usefulness" of a levee. Yet the judge ruled that "the owner or operator of a levee" could not hold the industry accountable for doing so. Given the 165 year history of joint federal-local partnership on levees, that judgment truly is bizarre. Her ruling is now being appealed to the Fifth Circuit. Oral arguments were February 29, 2016, and at this writing we await a decision.
Then this past November, Louisiana elected a new governor, John Bel Edwards, who was the suit's chief defender in the state legislature. We will see what his governorship will bring to the state. The story continues...
Meanwhile, if you're interested in my books and so on, here's the more formal version of my bio:
John M. Barry is a prize-winning and New York Times best-selling author whose books have won multiple awards. The National Academies of Science named his 2004 book The Great Influenza: The story of the deadliest pandemic in history, a study of the 1918 pandemic, the year’s outstanding book on science or medicine. His earlier book Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, won the Francis Parkman Prize of the Society of American Historians for the year’s best book of American history and in 2005 the New York Public Library named it one of the 50 best books in the preceding 50 years, including fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. His books have also been embraced by experts in applicable field: in 2006 he became the only non-scientist ever to give the National Academies of Sciences annual Abel Wolman Distinguished Lecture, a lecture which honors contributions to water-related science, and he was the only non-scientist on a federal government Infectious Disease Board f Experts. His latest book is Roger Williams and The Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and winner of the New England Society Book Award. (Scroll down for more about this book, including a syndicated op ed based on it.)
His books have involved him in two areas of public policy. In 2004, the National Academies of Science asked him to give the keynote speech at its first international scientific meeting on pandemic influenza, and in addition to serving on the government's Infectious Disease Board of Experts he was a member of the original team which developed plans for mitigating a pandemic by using "non-pharmaceutical interventions"-- i.e., public health measures to take before a vaccine becomes available. Both the Bush and Obama administrations have sought his advice on influenza preparedness and response, and he continues his activity in this area.
He has been equally active in water issues. After Hurricane Katrina, the Louisiana congressional delegation asked him to chair a bipartisan working group on flood protection, and from its founding in 2007 until October 2013 he served on the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority East, which oversees levee districts in metropolitan New Orleans, and on the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, which is responsible for the state's hurricane protection. (He was removed because of his role in in the lawsuit.) Barry has worked with state, federal, United Nations, and World Health Organization officials on influenza, water-related disasters, and risk communication.
His writing has received not only formal awards but less formal recognition as well. In 2004 GQ named Rising Tide one of nine pieces of writing essential to understanding America; that list also included Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address and Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” His first book, The Ambition and the Power: A true story of Washington, was cited by The New York Times as one of the eleven best books ever written about Washington and the Congress. His second book The Transformed Cell: Unlocking the Mysteries of Cancer, coauthored with Dr. Steven Rosenberg, was published in twelve languages. And a story about football he wrote was selected for inclusion in an anthology of the best football writing of all time published in 2006 by Sports Illustrated.
A keynote speaker at such varied events as a White House Conference on the Mississippi Delta and an International Congress on Respiratory Viruses, he has also given talks in such venues as the National War College, the Council on Foreign Relations, and Harvard Business School. He is co-originator of Riversphere, a $100 million center being developed by Tulane University; it will be the first facility in the world dedicated to comprehensive river research.
His articles have appeared in such scientific journals as Nature and Journal of Infectious Disease as well as in lay publications ranging from Sports Illustrated to Politico, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Fortune, Time, Newsweek, and Esquire. A frequent guest on every broadcast network in the US, he has appeared on such shows as NBC's Meet the Press, ABC's World News, and NPR's All Things Considered, and on such foreign media as the BBC and Al Jazeera. He has also served as a consultant for Sony Pictures and contributed to award-winning television documentaries. Finally, he sits on numerous boards and advisory boards, including ones at M.I.T’s Center for Engineering Systems Fundamentals, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and the Society of American Historians.
Before becoming a writer, Barry coached football at the high school, small college, and major college levels. Currently Distinguished Scholar at the Center for Bioenvironmental Research of Tulane and Xavier Universities and adjunct faculty at the Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, he lives in New Orleans.
Barry's latest book focuses on the development of both the idea of separation of church and state and the first expression of individualism in the modern sense. These two issues-- how we define the relationship between church and state and between the individual and the state-- have opened fault lines which have divided America throughout our history up to today. Here is an op ed syndicated by The Los Angeles Times February 5, 2012 :
A Puritan's `War Against Religion.'
In January, while conservative Christians and GOP presidential candidates were charging that "elites" have launched "a war against religion," a federal court in Rhode Island ordered a public school to remove a prayer mounted on a wall because it imposed a belief on 16-year-old Jessica Ahlquist. The ruling seems particularly fitting because it was consistent not only with the 1st Amendment but with the intent of Roger Williams, who founded Rhode Island expressly to provide religious liberty and who called such forced exposure to prayer "spiritual rape."
As Williams' nearly 400-year-old comment demonstrates, the conflict over the proper relationship between church and state is the oldest in American history. The 1st Amendment now defines this relationship, but understanding the full meaning of the amendment requires understanding its history, for the amendment was a specific response to specific historical events and was written with the recognition that freedom of religion was inextricably linked to freedom itself.
The church-state conflict began when Puritans, envisioning a Christian nation, founded what John Winthrop called "a citty upon a hill" in Massachusetts, and Williams rejected that vision for another: freedom. He insisted that the state refrain from intervening in the relationship between humans and God, stating that even people advocating "the most Paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or Antichristian consciences and worships" be allowed to pray — or not pray — freely, and that "forced worship stinks in God's nostrils."
Yet Williams was no atheist. He was a devout Puritan minister who, like other Massachusetts Puritans, fled religious persecution in England. Upon his arrival in 1631 he was considered so godly that Boston Puritans had asked him to lead their church. He declined — because he considered their church insufficiently pure.
Reverence for both Scripture and freedom led Williams to his position. His mentor was Edward Coke, the great English jurist who ruled, "The house of every one is as his castle," extending the liberties of great lords — and an inviolate refuge where one was free — to the lowest English commoners. Coke pioneered the use of habeas corpus to prevent arbitrary imprisonment. And when Chancellor of England Thomas Egerton said, "Rex est lex loquens; the king is the law speaking," and agreed that the monarch could "suspend any particular law" for "reason of state," Coke decreed instead that the law bound the king. Coke was imprisoned — without charge — for his view of liberty, but that same view ran in Williams' veins.
Equally important to Williams was Scripture. Going beyond the "render unto Caesar" verse in the New Testament, he recognized the difficulty in reconciling contradictory scriptural passages as well as different Bible translations. He even had before him an example of a new translation that served a political purpose. King James had disliked the existing English Bible because in his view it insufficiently taught obedience to authority; the King James Bible would correct that.
Given these complexities, Williams judged it impossible for any human to interpret all Scripture without error. Therefore he considered it "monstrous" for one person to impose any religious belief on another. He also realized that any government-sponsored prayer required a public official to pass judgment on something to do with God, a sacrilegious presumption. He also knew that when one mixes religion and politics, one gets politics. So to protect the purity of the church, he demanded — 150 years before Jefferson — a "wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world."
Massachusetts had no such wall, compelled religious conformity and banished Williams for opposing it. Seeking "soul liberty," he founded Providence Plantations and established an entirely secular government that granted absolute freedom of religion. The governing compact of every other colony in the Americas, whether English, French, Spanish or Portuguese, claimed the colony was being founded to advance Christianity. Providence's governing compact did not mention God. It did not even ask God's blessing.
Williams next linked religious and political freedom. It was then universally believed that governments derived their authority from God. Even Winthrop, after being elected governor in Massachusetts, told voters, "Though chosen by you, our authority comes from God."
Williams disputed this. Considering the state secular, he declared governments mere "agents" deriving their authority from citizens and having "no more power, nor for longer time, than the people … shall betrust them with." This statement sounds self-evident now. It was revolutionary then.
The U.S. Constitution, like Providence's compact, does not mention God. It does request a blessing, but not from God; it sought "the blessings of liberty," Williams' "soul liberty." As Justice Robert Jackson wrote, "This freedom was first in the Bill of Rights because it was first in the forefathers' minds; it was set forth in absolute terms, and its strength is its rigidity."
Eight years after the Constitution's adoption, the Senate confirmed this view in unanimously approving a treaty. It stated: "[T]he government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion."
Yet the argument continues. Presidential candidates and evangelicals ignore American history and insist on injecting religion into politics. They proclaim their belief in freedom — even while they violate it.