A Critic’s Critique: Roger Ebert Gave ‘Two Thumbs Up’ To The Church-State Wall

Film critic Roger Ebert was a great defender of the separation of church and state.

I’ll admit it: I enjoy reading scathing reviews of books and films. Critics are called that for a reason. When it’s time to be critical, some of them really know how to put it out there.

Consider Roger Ebert. The long-time movie reviewer for the Chicago Sun-Times didn’t hold back when he was forced to sit through a bad film.

Here he is commenting on a 1987 romantic comedy called “One Woman Or Two”: “Add it all up, and what you've got here is a waste of good electricity. I'm not talking about the electricity between the actors. I'm talking about the current to the projector.”

When the sci-fi non-epic “Battlefield Earth” was released in 2000, Ebert was not impressed. “’Battlefield Earth’ is like taking a bus trip with someone who has needed a bath for a long time,” he wrote. “It’s not merely bad; it’s unpleasant in a hostile way.”

Ebert, who died yesterday at age 70 after a battle with cancer, was, thanks to his frequent TV appearances, one of the most famous film critics in the nation. But here’s something you might not have known about him: He was a staunch defender of church-state separation.

Aside from his film reviews, Ebert wrote columns about other topics as well. Last year in an essay titled “Don’t tear down that wall!,” he lamented that too many Americans don’t support church-state separation.

Ebert was particularly dismayed to see religiously motivated attacks on reproductive rights.

“I do not propose to discuss the issues of abortion, birth control and in vitro fertilization,” he wrote. “I’m more concerned with those who would pass laws enforcing their religious beliefs. They apparently see no conflict between the laws they propose and the separation of Church and State.

“What the First Amendment provides is that each and every American is entitled to follow the teachings of the church of their choice, or for that matter no church at all,” Ebert continued. “What if your beliefs, or your church, permit abortion or in vitro fertilization? Are you now to become a criminal? The problem with such laws is that they would legislate the personal religious beliefs of the candidates. The law is well-advised to stand free of such beliefs.”

In another column, Ebert blasted candidates who mix their religious and political beliefs like a tossed salad – especially biblical creationists.

“I adamantly support the right of any candidate to profess any faith, or none,” Ebert wrote. He then added, “We can have no patience with a chief executive who professes the value of ancient superstitions in the forming of policy. My only purpose today is to state early and often that if a Presidential candidate believes early humans used saddles to ride on the backs of dinosaurs, as they are depicted at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, that candidate should not be elected President.”

Here’s Ebert, a graduate of Catholic schools, on prayer in schools: “This is really an argument between two kinds of prayer – vertical and horizontal. I don’t have the slightest problem with vertical prayer. It is horizontal prayer that frightens me. Vertical prayer is private, directed upward toward heaven. It need not be spoken aloud, because God is a spirit and has no ears. Horizontal prayer must always be audible, because its purpose is not to be heard by God, but to be heard by fellow men standing within earshot.”

I’m going to miss Ebert’s film reviews – the positive ones and the scathing ones – and I’m going to miss his insightful commentary on church-state issues. It’s some comfort to know that he left behind an impressive body of work that will be read for many years to come.

To that, I say, “Two thumbs up!”