Interview with Rob Boston – Editor, Church & State (Americans United for Separation of Church and State)

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Rob Boston is the Editor of Church & State (Americans United for Separation of Church and State). Here we talk about his life, work, and views.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was early life like for you, e.g., geography, culture, language, religion or lack thereof, education, and family structure and dynamics?

Rob Boston: I was born and raised in Altoona, Pennsylvania, a faded railroad town in an economically depressed area of the Rust Belt. My father was a housepainter, and my mother was a housewife.

I’m the eighth of nine children. We were not well off, and I’ve known some lean times. Given the size of my family, life could be somewhat chaotic, but my parents (especially my mother) were warm and caring and made sure that we were provided for.

My mother was a very devout Roman Catholic and raised all of us in that faith. I attended a Catholic elementary school until eighth grade. As a child, I was fairly devout.

However, by age 16 I started to entertain doubts, and the following year I left the church. The area I grew up in is also very politically conservative. I began to break away from that sort of thinking around the same age.

I moved away from Altoona and relocated to the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., in 1986.

Jacobsen: What levels of formal education have been part of life for you? How have you informally self-educated?

Boston: Despite my family’s lack of means, I was able to attend college thanks to a scholarship and government assistance. I earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism with a minor in political science from Indiana University of Pennsylvania in 1985.

Even though the university I attended was only 50 miles from where I was born, my time there really opened my eyes.

I got to meet people from different cultures and backgrounds, and I remember several professors who really did a great job not just instructing us in certain subjects but conveying how to think. I also had some really good English professors who introduced me to great literature.

I had always had an interest in learning, however. When I was a kid, we lived in the center city about five blocks from a public library. I spent a lot of time there.

I’ve always loved to read, and I believe learning is a life-long process. Since graduating from college, I’ve continued self-education by filling some gaps through reading. I’m a serial reader.

I finish one book and then start another. I always have something in the pipeline, and I read from a variety of fields, both fiction and non-fiction.  

Jacobsen: With Americans United for Separation of Church and State, what are some of its more important activist activities to pay attention to, as we move further into 2019?

Boston: Church-state separation is pretty much under constant siege thanks to the Trump-Pence administration. One of the biggest threats we face is the attempt to redefine religious freedom and turn it into an instrument that fosters discrimination.

We’ve had several cases in this country where the owners of businesses are seeking a legal right to deny goods and services to members of the LGBTQ community, arguing that allowing them into their stores and shops violates their religious freedom.

This sort of thing reminds me of the Jim Crow era in American history where African Americans were denied the right to eat in certain restaurants or be served in some shops. It’s discrimination, plain and simple.

At the same time, the administration is implementing rules that would allow health care providers to deny services to people as well, again on the basis of religious beliefs.

This is very dangerous, because it could put some people’s lives at risk, and again, it is the LGBTQ community that will bear the brunt.

Trump has also tried, unsuccessfully so far, to change federal law so that houses of worship can intervene in partisan politics.

Allowing that kind of activity would not only make a mess of our campaign-finance laws, which are already quite weak, it would also fundamentally change the nature of houses of worship and the role they play in society.

Trump is also putting far-right extremists on the federal courts, which is a very serious problem.

Jacobsen: As the Editor of Church & State, in terms of its original emphasis on the secular movements within the United States, what have been the major victories over time?

What have been the major failures, too? How can those successes be built upon and losses attenuated and learn from now?

Boston: We’ve done a lot of work over the years defending the public school system from aggressive, fundamentalist religious groups that have tried to use the schools to promote their particular forms of dogma – and we’ve won landmark cases.

For example, we have filed legal cases to keep creationism out of public school science classes. We’ve reminded the nation that public schools serve a vast array of young people from many different religious beliefs as well as those who have no belief. We can only get along if the school remain neutral on matters of theology. It’s important work, and I’m proud of it.

At the same time, more recently we’ve been working to expose the connection between church-state separation and issues like LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, censorship, reproductive freedom, sound science and others. In our view, you are never truly free if the government is forcing you to live under the rules of someone else’s religion.

One area where we’ve lost ground is the question of tax funding of religion. It used to be a given that religious groups had to rely on voluntary funds to pay for their work.

But some religious groups have been lobbying for public support for their private schools, to pay for their social service work and even to maintain and upkeep their facilities.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has allowed some types of this funding – mainly school vouchers. I fear the situation is only going to get worse as more and more Americans leave formal religious groups.

Houses of worship will get less money from members, and some will be tempted to turn to the state to make up the difference.

As for what lessons we have learned, it’s simple: We have to teach Americans anew that religious freedom is firmly linked to church-state separation.

True religious liberty can’t exist without some distance between those institutions. If you are being taxed to pay for someone else’s faith, you are not truly free. If your children are being compelled to recite some other faith’s prayers in a public school, you are not truly free.

If your town is festooned with the symbols of the majority religion, you are not truly free. If your basic rights are being taken away because of someone else’s religion, you are not truly free. If what you can see or read is limited because of another’s religion, you are not truly free.

Jacobsen: When you’re looking to accept submissions of articles, what are your general criteria for vetting the submissions? How would you recommend prospective contributors use this as a heuristic for their own submissions to Church & State?

Boston: Most copy for Church & State is generated on staff by myself and Liz Hayes, the assistant editor of the magazine. We do consider outside writers for our “Viewpoint” columns.

These are opinion pieces that explore different aspects of church-state relations. What we’re looking for here is a fresh perspective – maybe a new spin on an old issue or perhaps a different way of framing an emerging issue.

Jacobsen: As a long-time activist and writer, who have been the great writers and intellectuals – well-known or not – in your time as a professional?

Of those writers making the case for the separation of church and state, who have, in your opinion, made the most compelling and important case for it, in the United States?

Boston: Leo Pfeffer was a giant in this field. He wrote a massive work called Church, State and Freedom that was for many of us the standard reference on church and state for a long time.

Leo died in 1993, but his work is still consulted by many people working in this field. Robert S. Alley, a professor at the University of Richmond and a scholar on the work of James Madison, was an inspiration to me.

Bob, who died in 2006, did excellent work debunking the Religious Right’s false “Christian nation” claims. Also important is the late Robert O’Neil at the University of Virginia was an expert on Thomas Jefferson and his views on church-state separation.

There have been others – I’ve enjoyed the work of Katherine Stewart, who has written about creeping Christian nationalism in Americans politics, and Chris Rodda has done yeoman’s work debunking many of the Religious Right’s claims about history.

In addition, a lot of good investigative journalists are out there every day digging into the Religious Right’s goals and exposing their schemes. I’m thankful for their work.

Jacobsen: As a small personal question, do children change the focus in life? If so, how? Do you think this is a different shift in some ways than those who have an assertion of a hereafter in their view of the world?

Boston: My wife and I have two children who are now young adults (ages 24 and 21). Yes, children definitely change your focus in life. On a practical level, parents are compelled to put some aspects of their own lives on hold for a bit and transfer their time and energy to raising children.

Speaking just personally, I found that parenting forced me to think more deeply about moral education and, more importantly, how to impart moral instruction. I always knew where I stood, but I hadn’t thought much about how to raise good, decent and caring children – until I had to do it.

Traditional Christian morality holds that if you are good, you will go to heaven when you die, but if you are bad, you’ll go to hell. Thus, the idea is that you should be good to receive a reward.

I think this is a simplistic version of ethics. We are called to be good and decent for its own sake, because it is the right thing to do – not just because we want a reward. Getting that point across to children is to me the key to their moral development.

Jacobsen: How can people become involved through the donation of time, the addition of membership, links to professional and personal networks, giving monetarily, exposure in interviews or writing articles, and so on?

Boston: People who are interested in getting involved with Americans United should visit our website, www.au.org. You can join there, get information about chapters, find links to our social media sites, make donations and read updates on the latest news concerning church-state separation.

Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts based on the conversation today?

Boston: I would just like to add that Americans United has always been an organization composed of religious believers and non-believers. I think this partnership has been key to our success.

While our members may not agree on theology, they are united in the belief that only separation of church and state can protect our precious freedom of conscience.

The whole point is that we don’t all have to agree on religion, but we must respect one another’s rights and not seek to use the power of the government to force anyone to live under the religious views of another.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Rob.

Boston: Thank you.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.

Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.

Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.

Photo by Chris Leipelt on Unsplash

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