Before we had the internet and digital news, I used to begin my days at Americans United by unfolding a paper copy of The New York Times and scanning the headlines for news about separation of church and state.
On Aug. 29, 1993, I spotted an op-ed that blew me away. Written by Dr. Robert H. Meneilly, a Presbyterian minister who pastored the Village Church in Prairie Village, Kan., it began with a bold statement: “Religion can be the greatest thing on earth or the worst. It can be the greatest healing therapy in society, or the greatest hazard to a society’s health. It can be a democratic republic’s greatest good or its worst threat.”
What followed was a powerful broadside against the political machinations of the Religious Right. My first question after finishing it was, “Who is this man?” My second was, “How can we work with him?”
I soon learned that Meneilly, who died July 20 at age 96, was no stranger to social justice. He worked for civil rights in the 1960s, women’s rights in the 1970s and LGBTQ rights in the 1980s and ’90s. He recognized religious extremism for what it was: a threat to everyone’s rights. He knew he had to speak out.
Bob’s op-ed was an edited version of a sermon, and he graciously allowed Church & State to reprint the entire presentation in the February 1994 issue. Reading it again this weekend, I was especially struck by this passage: “The issue of this sermon is not politics, but religion. If we continue to let the historic wall between church and state erode away, religion will suffer more than the state. Religious Right extremists want nothing less than to force our American society to enact into law their exclusive religious views, and thereby impose them on everyone. But ours is a constitutional republic made up of many different religions – where every individual’s rights are guaranteed and all voices are heard. The Religious Right seeks a theocracy that legislates and enforces its particular vision of God’s law.”
Two things jump out at me: Bob knew how to tell it like it is, and those words could have been written last week.
After his Times opinion column, Meneilly and several other pastors in Johnson County, Kan., formed the Mainstream Coalition, a Kansas-based group that worked to counter religious extremism. It was an opportune time. TV preacher Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition was taking over state branches of the Republican Party in state after state, and James Dobson’s Focus on the Family had formed state affiliates to pressure legislators to enact repressive “pro-family” legislation that was anything but. Bob and his clerical allies struck back with force, making it clear to millions of Americans that these budding theocrats did not speak for all Christians and certainly not for all people of faith.
He once told the Kansas City Star, “I have always believed in the preservation of the separation between church and state. My main point was that our constitutional liberties are not anti-religious. Sometimes the Religious Right claims they are.”
Throughout his professional life, Bob Meneilly worked to expand freedom and oppose those who would use their religion as a cudgel to keep others down. The stands he took were often not popular at the time, but they were always right. He leaves quite a legacy. Let’s honor it by carrying forth his work.
Photo: Screenshot from the Village Church website.