Editor’s Note: Charles Sumner is a longtime Americans United member and activist. He is the founder and former president of Americans United’s Nashville Chapter, and is a member of AU’s National Leadership Council. Before founding AU’s Nashville Chapter, Sumner was also one of the founders of the Rochester chapter, which is AU’s oldest extant chapter. He spoke recently with Church & State writer Rokia Hassanein about his activities on behalf of Americans United.
Q: You worked with Americans United in several states but spent several years with the AU chapter in Rochester, N.Y. What made you interested in getting involved in church-state separation/religious freedom activism?
Sumner: I was overseas in the U.S. Air Force and when I came back, I got into a Catholic college. In the process of being there for a few years (1949-1952) before I went on to Cornell University, I encountered some things that made me question what was going on, and one of these was a book that they called “Moral Theology.” When I read it, there was information about what would happen to a Catholic mother in case there was a conflict between survival of her or the fetus. It struck me, so I went to talk to my Methodist minister and I got an earful from him. He told me if I was interested in this, then I should write to the bishop. The bishop in that area at the time was a well-known activist named Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam, who invited me to join Americans United. He was one of the founders of Americans United.
In college, I didn’t really have any money at the time, so I didn’t know if I would join right away. I think the dues then were maybe only $5, so maybe I did join. So the stuff that I heard and experienced in college bothered me a lot, and so that’s what started me off, and I’ve had that same interest ever since.
Q: You must have experienced culture shock when you retired to Tennessee. People tend to think of Tennessee as a socially and religiously conservative state. What sort of church-state issues have you faced there?
Sumner: It wasn’t a lot different from what I experienced in New York. There’s the same sort of stuff going on in New York that goes on in Tennessee – I guess particularly among rural folks and the legislature. They [the legislature] are always bringing up bills that are offensive to religious freedom.
But in New York, there was more support from clergy than we have here in Tennessee, and when I was in New York, we had chapters in Syracuse, Buffalo, Binghamton and Rochester, and we coordinated. I think we had three annual meetings, but when you get down here to Tennessee, we have only the Nashville Chapter.
My arrival here was cushioned, I think, by my family because two of my daughters had already moved here, and one of them was going to a Unitarian church, so I started going to the Unitarian church, and that kept me in touch with people with similar points of view. Nashville itself is fairly liberal, but I guess that’s because a lot of people have moved here and are maybe more educated than [those in] rural areas that are not very liberal.
The legislature here is terrible; they always bring up offensive bills, but we’ve had a rise of seculars. We had a secular meetup group; we have an atheist meetup group, two humanist groups, and all these people are attuned to stuff we promote.
Q: What has been the most rewarding part of your AU experience?
Sumner: That’s kind of hard to pin down. I think to have been exposed to so much, to know more about certain situations and to know what to do about it and how to get everybody to do it... it expands your knowledge quite a lot.
I’ve run into a lot of wonderful supporters of religious liberty. I’ve run into clergy of all different kinds of denominations. A lot [of clergy] don’t want to expose themselves publicly because they run congregations that are divided, so it’s been a little harder to get their support.
Q: What do you think are some of the most pressing religious freedom/ church-state separation issues we face on the national stage today?
Sumner: I think it’s pretty obvious to everyone that the biggest threat is President Donald Trump’s administration because of their attempts to overturn everything. I’d say that women’s reproductive rights are still one of the crucial things that’s happening all around the country, and also in Tennessee. They’re [the Trump administration] even working against contraception, which doesn’t make any sense because contraception prevents abortion, and they’re all hot and bothered about having abortions. I’d say also some of the LGBTQ issues are crucial.
Q: How can we best spread the word about church-state activism in states such as Tennessee with mostly conservative communities?
Sumner: I think we could make a little more effort in outreach. There are vast areas in Tennessee. We’ve tried to educate people here, but I mean, it’s a big state, and we need to do something in other areas of the state.
We need to be cautious about how we do it because some of these people feel that their beliefs are being challenged and eradicated and if we come at them too hard, I think they’ll just resist. I think something like the Protect Thy Neighbor project has a good chance at success because I think they do try to be fair, and if they [people resistant to supporting church-state separation] understand the elements of that project, they could be supportive of at least that aspect.
Q: What can average citizens do to defend the separation of church and state?
Sumner: I guess one thing would be to work with some existing organizations. There are a lot of organizations that do a lot of good, and if several people could help educate within those organizations, then I think they would get some support to acquaint people with what separation of church and state really means, as opposed to maybe what they thought it meant.