Documentary On Separation of Church and State Shows How the Right Has It Wrong

Stop for a moment. Think about it. Think about it critically. Organized religious activity in public schools is unconstitutional. And for good reason.
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GOP Presidential candidate Rick Santorum once again is pandering to conservative evangelicals by resurrecting his stomach churning position at a recent banquet in Alabama, where he renewed his criticism of John F. Kennedy's belief in an America "where separation of church and state is absolute."

The problem is that this persistent position taken by Santorum -- a lawyer -- is not just one that puts him at odds with the late president Kennedy, but also with the earliest U.S. presidents, the ones who helped establish the nation by writing the U.S. Constitution. It also puts him at odds with at least one person, whose moving story illustrates why the Framers felt a compelling need to erect what Thomas Jefferson called "a wall of separation" between the government and religion.

This month -- Women's Month -- we are given a chance to consider the powerful human story behind the story of the fight that led ultimately to the Supreme Court's 8-1 ruling in 1948 that provided the framework for the contemporary principle of separation of church and state. It is a story that is beautifully rendered in the Peabody and Emmy Award-winning documentary, "The Lord is Not on Trial Here Today," which airs on PBS stations in coming days and weeks. (Check local listings.) It is a story you might expect to be embraced by politicians who advocate the right of individuals to be free from government interference in their most intimate affairs, including their beliefs.

While the constitutional basis for the "wall of separation" is meticulously unpacked in the documentary, the issue is all the more compelling because of the way we see it play out in this narrative. For, at its heart, this is a mother's story, the story of Vashti McCollum, who in 1945 embarked on a three-year legal odyssey -- marked, she said, by "headlines, headaches and hatred" -- ultimately leading to vindication of her beliefs and, as important as anything else, her fifth-grade son, Jim.

At a time when it seemed few in McCollum's conservative Champaign, Illinois community dared to question the connection between American ideals and patriotism, between patriotism and religion, between religion and Protestant Christianity, in that rush-to-judgment world, McCollum hit the "pause button." Stop for a moment. Think about it. Think about it critically. Organized religious activity in public schools is unconstitutional. And for good reason.

"The constitution says government institutions can't play favorites with religion," notes the film's award-winning writer-producer, Jay Rosenstein. "That's really what the establishment clause says to me: all religions and non-religion have to be treated equally by the government," says Rosenstein, associate professor of journalism and a colleague of mine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "It wasn't until someone like Vashti McCollum stood up, went through all this financial hardship, emotional hardship, physical hardship, that that right suddenly got applied to the rest of us."

The "rest of us." Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists... And that's the key point of it all. In practice, to teach religion is to privilege religion -- to "play favorites," to make a choice. And to choose one religious doctrine -- or religion period -- is to exclude all other beliefs, marginalizing so many other faithful and non-believers in the process. Breaking the American promise of an inclusive and egalitarian society.

For Vashti McCollum, the journey began when Jim, the oldest of her three sons, was belittled and bullied and beaten for opting out of the "released time," the Protestant Christian indoctrination that was common in public schools during the 1940s -- a time when, for many, Christian faith was seen as spiritual fuel powering the war against godless authoritarian regimes.

Vashti McCollum waged her own war -- a legal battle to ban religious teaching in public schools -- demonstrating more fidelity to fundamental American principles than the people who tried to shut her up and shut her down. She lost her suit in Champaign County and then later her appeal in Illinois. But she was not defeated. "I was in it for the kill," enthralls a 92-year-old McCollum in the documentary, pumped up, it seemed, by the sheer memory of it all. "I was obligated to go on," even in the face of hate mail and isolation, often driven, it seemed, by slanted local newspaper coverage.

As she would be told by her second son, Dan (who years later would be elected mayor of Champaign for three terms), "Sometimes our culture picks on the wrong person at the wrong time."

While the eventual 8-1 Supreme Court victory plays out in a taut dramatic presentation here, the documentary is just as significant for its resonance in the contemporary moment -- a time when conservatives increasingly are questioning established principles. People like Rick Santorum. Doubts about the constitutional validity of separation of church and state have been amplified by media coverage of such prominent political stars of the moment, who can hide such ironically un-American views behind a choir boy countenance. Such views indicate "just how little the average American knows about this whole concept," notes Rosenstein, who set out on the documentary project in part to show where the concept came from, "how it became part of our legal lexicon."

All the more compelling, he believes, in light of recent efforts to disseminate conservative dogma -- writ large. In 2010, for example, the Texas Board of Education approved a curriculum that promotes a new take on history and economics as presented in textbooks, questioning the separation of church and state doctrine, questioning evolution, emphasizing the superiority of American capitalism and, incidentally, the positives of Republican ideology. Given that the state of Texas is one of the nation's largest textbook buyers, this move is likely to influence the slant in textbooks distributed nationwide, and across subject matter.

"It's not just religion," Rosenstein cautions. "It's every aspect of difference. It's sexual orientation, it's kids who are gay and lesbian, everything. In a way, I kind of feel that what happened to Jim (McCollum) was, in some ways, the same story that happens to every kid or every family who is different in some way."

Which is why the human story -- the story behind the story with its universal themes -- is so important. When it comes to sorting socially constructed difference in America, everyone has something to add to our understanding, a chapter to write in the narrative, a way to make a difference.

"When we look at the history of this country, and so much of it is built on these Supreme Court cases," Rosenstein notes, "what people don't always realize, and certainly people who study the law tend to overlook, is that behind every one of these cases is a personal story and probably a very deep involved personal story about a person or family who had to go through great hardships and show great courage and have all sorts of negative things happen to them for having the courage to stand up for one of these unpopular ideas," he says. "The constitution," he notes, echoing legal scholars, "is not self-executing."

Vashti McCollum died in 2006 at age 93, considering in the documentary production just what it meant to wipe away the tears of a son who was ostracized, of being force-fed ideas you had no right to question, of being vilified as a "devil" woman and atheist. Thanks to the documentary, her voice once again can be heard in the contemporary discourse on this issue.
Rick Santorum has said that the idea that the church should have no influence in the operation of the state is "absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country."

On one level it should not be surprising that Santorum has reprised his opposition to such well-settled constitutional questions. After all, what comes off as a principled position is merely another strategic move as Santorum battles Newt Gingrich for support on the religious right in Alabama and Mississippi in this Tuesday's GOP Presidential primary contest -- two states where polls show Santorum is beating Mitt Romney decisively among evangelicals, yet still polling even with Romney generally because Gingrich continues to draw on Santorum's base.

In considering the "objectives and vision" Santorum suggests, we can go back to Thomas Jefferson's "wall of separation between church and state" or George Washington's declaration that "The government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion." Or, we simply can reflect on their foresight as illustrated in the story of Vashti McCollum to conclude that the right has it wrong on the "vision" thing.

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