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Chris Benson

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Separation of Church and State: PBS Airs Documentary of a Mother's Story

Posted: 05/11/11 12:56 PM ET

Too often we get so caught up in the pop themes that dominate our public affairs discourse -- the who's-on-first, pros-and-cons, winners-and-losers of it all -- that we blur the focus on the human factor. The people. People who are affected by the outcome. People with the courage to affect the outcome.

This Mother's Day, we were given a chance to consider people and courage and outcome. 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 aired Sunday on WTTW, Channel 11 (hopefully, again one day soon in Chicago) and will be seen on other PBS stations in coming days and weeks.

While the constitutional basis for the "wall of separation" is meticulously unpacked here, 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. Rack focus: the human factor.

Knowing this ahead of time (I had attended a preview in March), I decided it would be good to share the experience of viewing the documentary with my own mother (it was Mother's Day, after all). I figured she would find some commonality with the heroic Vashti McCollum. Everymother. "She was," my mother proudly would say later, "determined."

Indeed. 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. 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. Doubts about the constitutional validity of separation of church and state have been amplified by media coverage of such prominent political pop stars of the moment as last year's unsuccessful Delaware Republican/Tea Party Senate candidate Christine ("I'm not a witch") O'Donnell. 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. Last year, 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."

For my mom's part -- after considering the challenges met by Vashti McCollum, who died in 2006 at age 93, considering, as a mother would, 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 -- for my mom, the choice would have been clear had she been forced to make a choice. A mother's choice.

"I would have kicked ass."

Amen.