September 2021 Church & State Magazine | Featured

Americans United lost three champions of church-state separation in recent months, and we mourn their passing.

Ronald B. Flowers, a professor emeritus of religion at Texas Christian University (TCU) and a former member of AU’s Board of Trustees, died on June 27. Ron was a plain-spoken man who was fond of referring to himself as “just plain vanilla,” but that was pure modesty on his part. In fact, he was one of TCU’s most engaging professors, relying mainly on old-school methods of classroom lectures to bring the subject matter alive. Even after he left teaching, Ron never really retired, and he was often out and about giving lectures to community groups, allied organizations and others.

Ron had a special interest in the U.S. Supreme Court. His massive Toward Benevolent Neutrality: Church, State, And The Supreme Court, written with Robert T. Miller, is an important reference for students of church-state law. Before the rise of the internet, the tome was a must-have for anyone who studied or wrote about church-state separation because it was one of the few reference books that pulled together the text of the Supreme Court’s church-state cases. The meaty interpretive essays that introduced each section remain essential reading; I keep a copy on my bookshelf at AU.

Ron also penned That Godless Court?, a book that seeks to help Am­ericans understand what the high court has really said about religion in public life.

Church & State ran an interview with Ron about the book’s second edition in 2006 and printed an excerpt from it. In the book, Ron warned religious leaders to be wary of government’s attempts to “help” religion.

“I do not understand why many church leaders, not to mention innumerable lay people, particularly among the Christian Right, insist on a constitutional amendment to require ‘voluntary’ group prayer in public schools,” he wrote. “Many of them wonder why the church is not so important in people’s lives as it used to be, why secularism seems to be invading the church itself, and yet, in the next breath, they will ask the government to take over the work of the church in terms of prayer or government-financed religious education. Government accommodation and pro­­­motion of religion is the enemy of a vibrant, creative church.”

Aside from his powerful advocacy of church-state separation, Ron was a gentle, good-hearted man. He and his wife were married for 54 years. He was a father, grandfather and great-grandfather who loved to travel and learn new things. 

After Ron’s death, accolades poured in from the many students whose lives he touched over the years. While I was never in his classroom, I learned a lot from Ron – and thanks to the work he left behind, we all can still learn from him.

AU also recently lost Charles Sumner, who was among the founders of AU’s Rochester, N.Y., Chapter, one of our oldest. Behind his low-key demeanor, Charles was a dynamo whose activism kept the chapter running for decades. I had the honor of speaking to the group on several occasions at events that Charles always executed flawlessly.

When he retired from the pharmaceutical industry and moved to Nashville, Charles promptly started a chapter there. (He also helped revive a chapter in Detroit during a period when he resided in that city.)

On May 13, it was my privilege to speak via Zoom to the Nashville Chapter’s 20th anniversary celebration, where we took time to salute Charles and his accomplishments.

Five years ago, Charles, who died on June 24, granted an interview to Church & State during which he discussed how he got interested in our work. While attending a Catholic college in 1949, he got involved in the fight for reproductive justice. Charles was a Methodist at the time, and his minister suggested that he speak with Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam, one of the founders of Americans United. Ox­nam, a firebrand known for his progressive views, recommended that Charles join AU and get active. He did, and he never looked back.

Charles was constantly advocating for more education and activism. He put that into practice, often writing letters to the editor and op-ed columns for newspapers. Whenever AU called on Charles for help, the answer was always “yes.” It couldn’t be any other way with Charles.

Realizing his life was coming to an end, Charles penned a letter to his family. “Keep doing all the good things you are doing, and support some of the good causes you know are right and essential,” he said. “We cannot let our beloved country sink into a quagmire.” His call to action is one that can inspire us all to support the good causes we believe in.

Sadly, these are not the only losses AU has experienced recently. Flynn T. Harrell, a former member of AU’s Board of Trustees, a longtime supporter of church-state separation and an activist in South Carolina, died on July 8.

Flynn joined Americans United in 1959 after hearing a speech by Dr. Glenn L. Archer, then executive director of the organization. Flynn was steeped in the traditional Southern Baptist perspective of support for church-state separation and served as the president of the South Carolina Baptist Convention in 1987. But Flynn grew disgusted with the Southern Baptists’ drift away from church-state separation and the denomination’s embrace of the Religious Right. He became a Presbyterian in 1994 and served as an elder at Shandon Presbyterian Church in Columbia, S.C.

Flynn, whose career was in finance and government, was something of an unofficial archivist who loved to collect material about separation of church and state. Over the years, he amassed a vast number of magazines, books, whitepapers and other material. In November 2010 he turned it all over to the University of South Carolina, which created the Flynn T. Harrell Collection on the Separation of Church and State in the Ernest F. Hollings Special Collections Library. Much of the material in the collection was produced by Americans United and the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. 

Ron, Charles and Flynn all dedicated their lives to the cause of church-state separation, and we’re going to miss them. None of these men were especially flamboyant, but they always did the task before them with skill, diligence and zest. They were the sort of people you could rely on, and they brought a quiet passion to their work; you would never doubt their dedication because it shone through everything they did.

In short, these three giants of church-state separation were the kind of activists who form the backbone of Americans United, the sort of people we rely on to achieve our mission. We’ve lost them, and that is a loss that we all with mourn with heavy hearts. But let’s remember that they aren’t quite gone. They left behind a legacy of dedication to the cause of religious freedom protected by a high and firm church-state wall.

Ron, Charles and Flynn will be mis­­sed. We can best honor the memory of all three by continuing the work that was so important to them.