Midwestern Swing: Church-State Activism Is Alive And Well In America’s Heartland

No matter what your age or status in life, you should stay involved in defending the church-state wall.

I just got back from a trip to Indiana and Illinois where I was once again reminded of the importance of local activism.

In Indianapolis, I spoke at an event jointly sponsored by the Indiana Chapter of Americans United and the Center for Inquiry-Indiana. Called “Civic Day,” the annual event at the state capitol building is designed to inform residents of challenges facing their state and spur them to action.

And Indiana does indeed face challenges. Gov. Mike Pence, a close ally of the Religious Right, has proposed an expansion of the state’s private school voucher plan. Creationism bills have been introduced, and one legislator even proposed a bill requiring recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in public schools every day!

The good news is that Hoosiers are getting the information they need to combat these reckless efforts to mix church and state. Speaker after speaker stressed that lawmakers can’t take your concerns into account if you don’t voice them. Everyone was urged to speak out.

Indiana is a socially conservative state with a Republican majority in both legislative chambers. But that doesn’t mean all hope is lost. Last year, House Speaker Brian Bosma tabled a creationism bill after constituents helped him realize it would tie the state up in costly litigation.

I was also pleased to see that a broadly based coalition has formed in Indiana to defend church-state separation. The Center for Inquiry is a humanist group, and Americans United is non-sectarian. Several of the speakers noted their ties to religious groups. This sort of team effort is exactly what we need to protect the church-state wall.

This point was not lost on this blogger from Indiana University at Bloomington who attended the event.  She also noted that young people need to step up their activism. That thought was on my mind after the Indianapolis event as I drove about 200 miles west to Peoria, Ill., where I spoke at Bradley University.

At Bradley, I taught two classes and delivered an evening lecture before a large crowd of students, faculty and people who live in and around Peoria. (I was pleased to meet several AU members who came out for the talk.)

When I talk to undergrads, I always start with the basics. The first thing I do is recite the words of the First Amendment’s religion clauses. I don’t assume they know them because a lot don’t. From there I move on to a quick history lesson as we discuss what the Constitution actually says about these issues.

Students are often surprised to hear that things like “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” on paper money don’t go back to the founding period. And, since these are young people, many of them have never experienced mandated or coercive prayer in public schools. They are also sometimes shocked to hear about the “bad old days” when powerful religious groups had the ability to censor books and movies and curb access to contraceptives.

I always try to remind them not to get complacent. The life they know now, I said, is possible only because lots of people over the years stood up and defended a right of conscience that rests on a church-state wall. If we lost that wall, we could be dragged back to a darker, less free time.

There were a lot of questions after my speech, and some students came up for some one-on-one interaction. Several asked how they could get more involved in these issues. There is a lot of energy and enthusiasm on college campuses, and we would have to be crazy not to tap into that.

No matter what your status in life – student, worker, unemployed, retiree, etc. – I hope you’ll stay involved in these issues in whatever way you can. There are forces out there that burn to run your life by their theology. They’d like to see you sit on the sidelines. That alone is reason enough for you to get active.