Editor’s Note: Eric Lane leads Americans United’s San Antonio Chapter. Lane has been busy recently placing opinion columns in local newspapers and holding events to educate the public. He spoke recently with Church & State Editor Rob Boston about his activities on behalf of Americans United.
Q. How did you get interested in issues of separation of church and state? Was there a certain incident or life experience that got you into this issue?
Lane: Separation of church and state is such a fundamental part of who I am that, as I’ve grown older, I’ve become fiercer in its defense. Maybe it’s because I grew up in Northern California. Separation of church and state is as much a part of who we are in NorCal as the water we drink and the air we breathe. To us, it is the foundation of what it means to be an American.
Or maybe it’s because my father’s side of the family came over from Ireland during the potato famine and were subjected to a lot of anti-Catholic persecution both in Ireland and here in the states. But I never really knew my father. He died in a car accident when I was young.
Or maybe it’s because we lost just about everyone on my mother’s side of the family in the Holocaust. My immediate family and a few aunts survived because my great-grandfather had dual citizenship. He’d been a surgeon in the Union army and then a surgeon general in the French army during the Franco/Prussian War in 1870. During Kristallnacht, my family was warned by neighbors, and they escaped from Vienna to Italy. My mother was 20 years old at the time and studying to run one of my uncles’ (who died in a concentration camp) photography ateliers. On rare, rare occasions, my uncle Hugo would show me his concentration camp tattoo. I never knew my grandfather. He literally died of a broken heart shortly after arriving in California.
To answer your second question directly, separation of church and state is such a fundamental part of who I am, what I believe it means to be an American, that I cannot understand anyone who opposes this greatest gift from the Founders.
Q. How long have you been active with Americans United, and what led you to get involved with the group?
Lane: I would say most of my adult life. When I was younger I would pay my membership dues when I could afford it. Living in NorCal I often wondered why we even needed AU. Today I try to warn my friends about the assaults on church-state separation and they, for the most part, don’t get it.
Q. In your view, what are the most important issues we face today?
Lane: In this country it’s fairly obvious. It’s the Religious Right. Even though the Religious Right clothes itself in the American flag, the last thing they support is individual liberty, especially liberty of conscience. Since the ‘60s there has been a particularly virulent form of Religious Right extremism that has been deeply influenced by the writings of R.J. Rushdony. For those who don’t know, they are called Reconstructionists and they believe in “biblical law” or, more accurately, as the Reconstructionist David Chilton put it, “the universal development of Biblical theocratic republics.” This has led to Dominionism, the idea that Christians are to take dominion over, literally, modern life in order to wrest control away from Satan and his demonic spirits so that Christians can bring about God’s kingdom on Earth. They want to take control of: (1) Business; (2) Government; (3) Media; (4) Arts and Entertainment; (5) Education; (6) Family; and (7) Religion.
We cannot underestimate the dangers the Religious Right poses to American religious freedom, the separation of church and state and democracy itself.
Q. You live in Texas, which is a pretty conservative state. What advice do you have for activists working in deep red states where the Religious Right is politically powerful?
Lane: Living in Texas is what truly woke me up to the dangers we face. This is not a conservative vs. liberal battle. It’s not a “Culture War.” This is really what Jerry Falwell called a “Holy War.” And most people aren’t even aware it is happening. This is a major reason that I am working on a book titled The Founders’ Greatest Gift: The Separation of Church & State. The idea was born while writing editorials and historical articles for the San Antonio Express-News and being unable to find rich sources of materials that connected the historical circumstances that drove the Founders to separate church from state. Living in Texas, it’s not enough to oppose the Religious Right, you need to understand why you need to oppose them. I hope the book will accomplish this goal.
Texas today is really, at best, a democratic theocracy. Although I don’t know much about the other deep red states, I would think they are all similar. Take a look at the Texas Republican platform. Under Safeguarding Religious Liberties, Principle 151 states: “We affirm that the public acknowledgement of God is undeniable in our history and is vital to our freedom, prosperity, and strength. We pledge our influence toward a return to the original intent of the 1st Amendment and toward dispelling the myth of separation of church and state. . .” This statement stands in complete contradiction to the Founders’ words and intent.
The advice I would offer is first, surround yourself with good people, religious, atheist, skeptics, philosophers, workers, artists, etc. The community needs to understand that you are not a lone voice shouting in the wilderness. You need to be educating your community. I use editorials and special events to get our name out there and to point out important issues. Your chapter also really needs to be the eyes and ears of AU National so that when you see something blatantly wrong, you can let our Legal Department know. Barry Lynn has done an incredible job of building up the Legal Department and turning it into a force that no one can take lightly. This is extremely important as we move forward, and it may be Barry’s greatest legacy.
Q. You’ve placed several opinion columns in the San Antonio Express-News. What advice do you have for people who want to be more active with the media in their communities?
Lane: I have to say that the Express-News has been very fair with us. There is now a new editor, and we will have to see if he is as “open.” I hope so. The first bit of advice I’d give is stay within the word limit! Easy to say, hard to do. Second, try to write on an issue that is timely and educates the community on why church-state separation is so important. Third, edit, edit, edit, until it’s the best you can write. I often send my writings to the AU Board of Trustees and National Leadership Council to make sure they are on board with me. They often make very good additions, comments and corrections. Then I send it to you, Rob, for final approval so that I can sign it and have AU National behind me.
What is interesting, is that I rarely get any what I call “love” letters. That’s when outraged folks will attack me. You would think that living in the reddest of the red states there would be an outcry when I publish an editorial. But no. I wonder if that is because what I write makes so such common sense that it can’t be argued or whether they are sharpening their knives.
Q. People who are involved with Americans United are at different stages of their lives. Retirees might have more time to volunteer, but people who are working and raising kids have less. How can we use the tools at our disposal to spur activism among lots of different kinds of people?
Lane: You know what I have found? Just ask. Very often that’s all it takes. People will be honest with you. I don’t chase any particular demographic. I have limited amounts of time as well. I know that a 30-something would really like to be involved, but the chances are pretty slim. He or she is probably working full-time, has children that he or she has to take to volleyball practice or a game, and on and on. It makes sense that the real work of the chapter is done by the more gray-haired folks, if they have hair at all. Just ask. And keep getting exposure for your chapter. The community needs to know you exist.
Q. You’ve run a successful AU chapter for years. What have you learned along the way?
Lane: How incredibly good critically thinking people are. There are times when I sit at one of our board meetings or events and just marvel at the fact that we have religious folks of varying denominations, atheists of different types, folks of varying age, sex, background, race, sexual orientation, etc., and we are all here to defend each other’s right to believe or not believe whatever our conscience dictates. I hate to use the word but I’m going to: It’s magical. And I thank the Founders for their courage and brilliance and this incredible gift they bequeathed to us.
Q. Is there anything you’d like to add?
Lane: What makes our nation exceptional is that we were the first nation in human history to create a Constitution and a Bill of Rights that protect individual liberty of conscience. And the Founders understood that liberty of conscience could not exist without separating church from state. I mean, think about this. Really think about it. It is simply incredible. History offered them the opportunity, and they had the courage and wisdom to grab it. This most precious gift, the separation of church and state, has to be protected at all costs. If that light ever goes out, the light of human hope will be extinguished as well.
It is the ultimate irony that while we fight to defend the right of the Religious Right to believe as it wishes without government interference, the Religious Right is doing everything in its power to take that right away from us.
To find out if there is an Americans United chapter in your area, visit: www.au.org/get-involved/chapters