Americans United lost two champions recently, the kind of quiet, behind-the-scenes activists who make so much of our work possible.
Charles Sumner was among the founders of AU’s Rochester, N.Y., Chapter, one of our oldest. Charles was a dynamo who kept the chapter running for decades. When he retired from the pharmaceutical industry and moved to Nashville, Charles promptly started a chapter there.
Five years ago, Charles 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 never looked back.
During the interview with Church & State, Charles advocated for more education and activism. He put that into practice, often writing letters to the editor and op-ed columns for newspapers. Charles dedicated his life to the cause of church-state separation, and we’re going to miss him.
We also mourn the passing of Ronald B. Flowers, a professor emeritus of religion at Texas Christian University (TCU) and a former member of AU’s Board of Trustees. Ron was a plain-spoken man who was fond of referring to himself as “just plain vanilla,” but that was just him being modest. 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 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 essential reference for students of church-state law. Ron also penned That Godless Court?, a tome 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.)
Charles and Ron were not flashy speakers or high-profile media stars. They sought neither limelight nor attention. Their work took another form. Charles dedicated himself to grassroots activism, and Ron touched the lives of hundreds of students and others over a long and distinguished career.
Both Charles and Ron were examples of the kind of people who show up on time regularly and do the task before them with skill and zest. They were the sort of people you could rely on. They brought a quiet passion to their work; you would never doubt their dedication because it shined through everything they did.
In short, Charles and Ron 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 Charles and Ron, and that is sad. But let’s remember they aren’t quite gone. You see, they left behind a legacy of dedication to the cause of religious freedom protected by a high and firm church-state wall.
We can best honor their memory by continuing the work that was so important to both of them.
Photo: Charles Sumner (left) and Ron Flowers