When I left the rehearsal for our recent movie “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Separation of Church and State…But Were Afraid to Ask,” I was consumed by the thought that this was the most interesting collection of people in one place that I have been with in my entire life – and this was even before we factored in the musicians and Hollywood celebrities!
Perhaps even more importantly, the “champions” of religious freedom whose stories were being told had never met each other. They had not recognized that the fight against an evangelistic teacher in New Jersey had much of the same feel as the battle against a Ten Commandments-wielding judge in Alabama or that proselytization efforts at the Air Force Academy in Colorado had the same sickening effect as did religious discrimination in Nevada. Listening to these courageous people talking to each other was mesmerizing.
And, then, of course, there were musicians, actors, and comedians who joined the First Freedom First affair. I had watched Jack Klugman long before “The Odd Couple” in the great courtroom drama “Twelve Angry Men” (which was last year remastered on DVD for its 50th anniversary). I’m a big fan of Kevin Bacon both as an actor and a musician, having seen him at Washington’s best music room, the Birchmere, and at the Philadelphia Folk Festival.
Our program host, Peter Coyote, acts in terrific films and has the greatest voice for narration since Orson Welles (thus, his extensive work on Ken Burns documentaries). Dan Lauria of “The Wonder Years” and Wendie Malick of “Just Shoot Me!” are wonderful television stars with a deep commitment to our issues and a serious concern about how their business is treating serious problems.
I had met Catie Curtis, the fine singer-songwriter, when we did a program together for a national convention in Utah of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays a few years back. And comedian Marc Maron had me sit in with him for his three-hour stint one morning when he worked for Air America. So, new friends or old, I hope you’ll forgive me being a little “star struck.”
The easy interaction with our “champions” was a testament to the respect each had for the others’ courage and commitment. During our Monday rehearsal, Coyote and I talked about many things from our favorite novels to his years at a Buddhist retreat. At one point, he noted that he was reading this great book about the “dumbing down of America” but couldn’t put his finger on the title.
“It wouldn’t be The Age of American Unreason, would it?” I asked. “Yes,” he replied. He was surprised that Susan Jacoby, its author, was the very person he’d be interviewing an hour later in our segment on “Worship…Or Not.” It is indeed a small world.
I like the way this event turned out. As a quasi-obsessive film buff, I couldn’t help but be reminded of those old Mickey Rooney movies where he would try to raise money for some good cause by saying “Let’s put on a show!” (usually with Judy Garland as I recall).
Our “show” was designed to be a look at eight areas where religious liberty and the freedom of conscience is seriously threatened today, using every communication means we could find: filmed vignettes, live interviews with people who put their lives and careers on the line, a stand-up comedy routine, music, and even a mini-sermon from Pastor Madison Shockley of Carlsbad, Calif. Education and entertainment intertwined in a two-hour package without commercial interruption (other than a few plugs for the cause of religious freedom, of course). I couldn’t be happier with the result.
We filmed the program on March 25, and the next evening it aired in movie theaters in 37 cities nationwide. I drove to Richmond, Va., to see it with my daughter who is now at the University of Virginia Law School. The audience was quite enthusiastic.
This show was, as the famous Monty Python comedy troupe once said, “something completely different.” It had to be. It was designed to speak to many different kinds of people, including the younger folks we sometimes have difficulty connecting with. Some of them don’t quite understand our obsessive interest with exegesis of Jeffersonian texts and don’t even think the old line “there will be prayer in school as long as there are math tests” is the height of comic expression.
We do best by listening to each other, at least sometimes, through the means of communication that is most comfortable to each audience with which we interact.
A video of the “Everything You Always Wanted to Know” event is now streaming on www.au.org and www.firstfreedomfirst.org. Very soon you’ll be able to obtain a DVD of the event for house parties, community meetings, or to watch in the privacy of your home (when your latest Netflix shipment has not arrived).
One more thing: Many of you have heard of the whimsical game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” whereby players attempt to link another actor to Kevin through film roles. The idea is that Kevin is always only six films, or “degrees” away from every other living actor. After this event, I’m pleased to be just “one” degree from him – if those preview screenings really count as “films.”
Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.