Editor’s Note: 2022 marks the 75th anniversary of the founding of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. To celebrate this milestone anniversary, Church & State is profiling important figures in the life of the organization throughout the year. This issue, we’re focusing on C. Stanley Lowell, a Methodist minister, author and activist who was affiliated with AU from 1951-74, including serving 19 years as the editor of Church & State.
There’s one thing you can say with confidence about C. Stanley Lowell, a Methodist minister and one of the early leaders of Americans United: The man loved to write.
During his 73-year lifespan, Lowell wrote or coauthored nearly 10 books and served as editor of AU’s monthly Church & State, where he regularly wrote, or collaborated in, editorials and columns. He testified before the U.S. Congress, penned articles for other publications, was in constant demand as a speaker and was frequently interviewed in the media.
How did Lowell find time to do all this? Apparently, the man had a system. A description of him on the dust jacket of Lowell’s 1966 book Embattled Wall: Americans United – an Idea and a Man, provides some insight: “Lowell works strenuously at his profession,” it reads. “He arrives at his desk by 7:30 each morning, travels widely, does a good deal of writing on airplanes, handles administrative responsibilities with one hand and editorial chores with the other.” (The description goes on to note that Lowell did have some hobbies, noting that he “gardens, climbs mountains and plays tennis.”)
This might not have been the life Lowell had envisioned for himself, but it’s one he took to with relish. Born in Hastings, Minn., in 1909, Lowell graduated from Asbury College, a private Christian institution in Wilmore, Ky. He later attended Duke University and graduated from Yale Divinity School. During World War II, he served as a chaplain in the U.S. Navy.
At first, it looked as if Lowell would launch a conventional minister’s career. He served Methodist pulpits in Virginia, Florida, Delaware and Washington, D.C.
An obituary of Lowell that ran in Church & State in 1983 noted that Lowell soon became concerned that support for the traditional American principle of separation of church and state was eroding. He preached a series of sermons on the topic in 1948 at Wesley Memorial Methodist Church in Washington, D.C. After one of these sermons, Lowell took the offering and personally delivered it to the offices of Americans United, which had been founded the previous year.
It was a bold action – one that made the leadership of Americans United take notice of this powerful preacher. Glenn L. Archer, then executive director of Americans United, befriended Lowell and was soon using him as an adviser. In 1951, Lowell joined AU’s executive committee (now known as the board of trustees). Five years later, he sought and received permission from Methodist officials in Virginia, where he was pastoring a church in Virginia Beach, to join the staff of Americans United in the nation’s capital.
The March 1956 issue of Church & State announced Lowell’s appointment, noting that he would serve as associate director. In May, he was listed as a contributing editor of the magazine and in February 1957 assumed control as the managing editor.
For the next two decades, issues of the magazine were studded with news of Lowell’s speeches and travels. When he wasn’t busy editing Church & State, Lowell took on the role of a top AU spokesman and sometime lobbyist.
On March 14, 1958, he testified before a subcommittee of the U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor, warning that a package of bills that steered taxpayer money to institutions of higher education could open the door to demands for public aid to private religious secondary schools. Three years later, Lowell testified in Congress again, warning a Senate subcommittee that a push to include religious schools in a federal aid-to-education bill would be a dangerous break with American tradition.
In 1962, Lowell jumped into a fray in Michigan, where some religious groups were trying to rewrite the state constitution to remove its strict ban on public funding of religious institutions. (They failed.)
Lowell did a series of radio appearances in California in 1967 as the state was locked in a bitter battle over liberalizing its abortion laws. Lowell remarked that he was pleased to see so much interest in the issue.
Something of a globe-trotter, Lowell traveled in Russia, Sweden, Australia, Colombia and the Philippines, often reporting on the state of religious freedom in those nations. During the Vietnam War, he made two journeys to that country, where he wrote about how religious tensions had escalated the conflict. In the early 1960s, he was in Rome as an accredited correspondent covering the Catholic Church’s Second Vatican Council, which he wrote about for Church & State.
Lowell never hesitated to stand up to demagogues. While traveling in Italy in 1938, he witnessed the rise of fascism, and he worked to help Jews escape the Third Reich. In the late 1940s, Lowell was appalled by the red-baiting of U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisc.) and attacked his tactics from the pulpit. Lowell is believed to have been one of the first clerics to speak out against what became known as the Red Scare.
If there was a common thread running through Lowell’s life and work, it was his firm belief that no one should be compelled to subsidize the faith of another or take part in their worship.
Reflecting on his time at AU as he prepared to leave the editorship of Church & State in the summer of 1974, Lowell observed, “[A]s a minister of the Gospel, I have always believed that voluntarism is of vital importance to religion. Free, voluntary religion is good; coerced or government mandated religion is bad.”
From there, Lowell went on to comment on the school prayer amendments AU opposed in the 1960s and ’70s. He labeled these proposals “grotesque” and added, “We saw it as bringing government squarely into the business of religion. Government would compose and prescribe ‘proper’ prayers for children and take over as their spiritual mentor. This was about the worst fate for religion we could contemplate.”
Lowell also understood that government support of religion would lead to its downfall. In his 1973 book The Great Church-State Fraud, Lowell seems almost prophetic, warning of a coming decline in American religion brought about by government efforts to “help” faith.
“A church which is joined with the state or inter-functions with the state tends to lose its power of attraction for the people,” Lowell wrote. “The reason for this is that under such conditions the people associate the church with the image of coercion which belongs to the state. The decline in the collection plate is a predictable outcome.”
Lowell also served as AU’s unofficial historian. Embattled Wall was published in 1966, one year before AU celebrated its 20th anniversary and was the first book-length history of the organization. The tome, illustrated with historic photos, provides a full account of the early years of the organization and recounts battles fought in courts, in Congress and in the media.
Lowell and his wife Arianne had three children – Ernest, Cadance and Arianne. Although he stepped down as editor of Church & State in 1974, Lowell remained active in the organization for a number of years after that and headed a research foundation the group used to sponsor.
Cadance Lowell, a professor in the Department of Agricultural and Life Sciences at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, affirmed her father’s work ethic.
“He got up typically between 4 and 4:30 in the morning,” she told Church & State. “He would write until 6. Then he’d go jogging, and then wake us up for school.” She called his system “regimented.”
In the 1950s and ’60s, Prof. Lowell said, her father counseled couples about birth control. When the Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973, he served on the board of a pro-choice organization in Washington, D.C. The issue of reproductive freedom, Prof. Lowell said, was “very important to him.”
Lowell also knew the value of education and lifelong learning. He referred to his trips around the world as “studying conditions.” When Cadance Lowell earned her master’s degree by writing a technical paper about botany, her clearly pleased father responded, “It’s wonderful. I didn’t understand any of it, but I’m proud of you.”
Said Prof. Lowell, “He always had a sense of fairness and for helping others.”
During his final years, Lowell suffered from Parkinson’s disease. He died of an aneurysm on Jan. 26, 1983.
The Rev. W. Melvin Adams, then executive director of Americans United, issued a statement that was direct but fitting: “Stan Lowell was one of the stalwarts of religious liberty,” Adams said. “He made a great impact in the field of church-state separation, and he will be greatly missed.”
The current erosion of church-state separation by the Supreme Court has dismayed many advocates. Lowell had some words of advice about that. In his farewell column for Church & State, he wrote, “The task of preserving church-state separation in the United States is a continuing one. The work must go on because there are always those who either ingenuously or with avaricious intent seek to subvert this arrangement.
“I have no illusions as to my own personal significance in this struggle,” Lowell continued. “Other perfectly capable hands will grasp the torch and carry on. They will do it as well or better than I. The cause itself is the thing. I have found a deep satisfaction in its pursuit. I shall be eternally grateful that I found it, or that it found me, and that we have had all these years such a delightful affinity. No tears, then. Forward, march!”